ORLANDO — Trey Murphy III used to split into groups with Sam Hauser, his college teammate and friend from Virginia, after the team’s weight-lifting sessions. Hauser greeted Murphy after transferring from Rice, welcoming him to the program and preparing to play their first minutes for the Cavaliers after Hauser sat out the previous year.
They battled in free throw competitions on opposite sides, taking part in a famous one that made Hauser smile three years later. Hauser stood ahead of Murphy on the white board in the gym counting victories before this day.
“We were the two best shooters and there was one day he hit 99 free throws out of 100,” Murphy told CLNS Media. “I went second and I ended up hitting 100 out of 100. It was one of those. We used to get into a lot of shooting battles, and there’d be some times we’d be in practice and I’d want to fight him, because he’s hitting really tough shots over me. It was really fun. I really love that dude.”
Hauser rode that shooting stroke to a Celtics roster spot after spending most of last season on a two-way deal, and a regular bench role this year on a team chasing a championship. He rewarded their decision by hitting 48.9% of his threes through 21 games. He held up defensively and played each night for 14.6 minutes next to Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams and a mix of centers in an effective second unit — until this week. Joe Mazzulla didn’t play Hauser against Golden State and Toronto after he fell to 28.8% from deep for 28 games.
The Celtics fell to the Magic, 113-98, as Hauser made his return to the rotation with Marcus Smart (knee), Malcolm Brogdon (personal) and Robert Williams III (knee management) out. Two nights on the bench cleared Hauser’s head and inspired him to play harder. He hit a driving layup after missing his first hook shots, then spotted up from the right corner in front of the Celtics bench to start 2-for-3 from the field.
It marked his first three since Jan. 9. Important timing with the trade deadline ahead and teams like Boston considering reinforcements for the spring. Murphy, Mazzulla and Boston’s staff never doubted his shot.
“It’s hard to maintain that high of a level for anyone shooting it that well,” Hauser told CLNS Media this month. “It’s my first time really being in the rotation and playing all these games, getting used to that whole lifestyle is probably part of it, but I’m taking good shots, I’ve gotten good looks, they just haven’t really gone in and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my mechanics or anything, it’s just people go through slumps and mine has been a little bit of a longer one. You keep shooting and taking good shots and making the most of whatever shots I get.”
Hauser noted slumps can cause players to shy away from the team and Smart had mentioned teammates growing dejected through the team-wide shooting slump in December. He managed to launch three shots behind the arc per game while struggling, and managed 1.5 when Mazzulla slashed his playing time to 6.5 MPG last week. Hauser acknowledged Pritchard and others surpassed him, and didn’t take the move personally. Pritchard logged 18.0 MPG for those four games, then both sat while the Celtics previewed a playoff rotation against Golden State.
Their play against Orlando underscored one of the larger questions for Boston approaching the deadline in 16 days. The Celtics won’t need to play Pritchard, Hauser and Kornet, who share limited-to-no playoff experience, if the roster is fully healthy. They can ramp up Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s minutes if Hauser doesn’t earn playoff trust, and Brogdon doubles as a wing. Robert Williams III and Horford ideally serve as each other’s backups. On Monday, Tatum exited the game in the third quarter for over four minutes and Orlando went on a 20-5 run. Hauser didn’t generate a shot as the Celtics turned the ball over, but finished 2-for-2 in the fourth.
“There’s nothing wrong with my shot,” Hauser said. “They just haven’t been falling as much lately. Shooters go through slumps, and I’ve definitely been through one lately, but just got to keep shooting. Just as a competitor, you want to be out there and it gives you that much more of an edge to work harder and try to earn something back. You don’t know when that opportunity’s going to come, but when it does come, you have to be ready for it.”
Paolo Banchero, the model of consistency for a rookie averaging 20.7 PPG, also told CLNS Media the spacing of NBA games can challenge young players who played once or twice per week in college. The G-League schedule progresses similarly, with one or two games packed together around the weekend in Maine. Mfiondu Kabengele, Boston’s two-way center, made his first appearance in consequential alongside Hauser at the start of the fourth as the Celtics tried to rally from down by 13 points. Kabengele quickly fouled twice and exited the game. Blake Griffin’s effectiveness expired after 11 minutes and Orlando’s front line challenged Kornet.
Hauser finished 5-for-9 with 13 points and hit 3-of-6 shots from three, rotating weak side to block Moe Wagner as he slipped by Boston’s front court defenders in his finest defensive play of the season. That, along with Smart, Brogdon and Horford’s absences guarantees another appearance at Miami on Tuesday for Hauser, who shook his slump his best performance of the new year.
Murphy, Hauser’s old teammate, broke through the Pelicans’ rotation with similar skills. Their shots mirror each other, as well as how they handled slumps, increasing their off ball activity and occasionally attacking the rim.
“They might show a little more respect to my ability to shoot,” Hauser said. “So they might be guarding me a little bit closer. For me, I’ve got to find ways to get open, find more space. I feel like I have done a pretty good job of that overall, but in basketball, you’re constantly learning and constantly growing. Being in only my second year in the league, I still have a lot of learning to do, but I think overall, I’ve got to keep doing what I do best out there, space the floor, try to make open shots and hold my own on defense.”