What the Celtics have experienced over the past few games is the Dennis Schröder experience: a combination of maddening miscues and turnovers blended with offensive brilliance and a crafty floor command that makes him such a fascinating player.
Why did the Lakers apparently offer Schröder $84 million before pulling the offer off the table when Russell Westbrook became available? It was nights such as Friday, when he single-handedly led the Celtics to a 122-113 victory in overtime against the shorthanded Milwaukee Bucks with 38 points on an array of shrewd (pun intended) moves that resulted in bunches of layups, mid-range jumpers, and floaters.
The Celtics signed Schröder to a one-year, $5.9 million deal in the biggest bargain of the offseason. And his first 12 games have been wildly inconsistent, him showing flashes of being a frontline NBA point guard offset by silly mistakes or missed open jumpers.
Against the Bucks, who were missing All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo (ankle) and Khris Middleton (COVID-19 protocol), the Celtics struggled to create distance most of the night before coming close to closing it out in regulation behind Schröder’s 11 fourth-quarter points.
With the Celtics clinging to a 1-point lead with 2:14 left in overtime, Schröder responded with a long 2-pointer, followed by a finger roll after capitalizing on a switch against Milwaukee’s Bobby Portis and finally two free throws resulting from another switch against Portis. He finished with 8 points in overtime, taking over the offense as even Jayson Tatum stepped back and allowed Schröder to work.
“I’ve just got to be comfortable pushing the pace on the offensive end,” he said. “Everybody just play free and have fun and play and I think that’s when we’re at our best. I think that’s what we did (Friday) and the last couple of games, playing on the defensive end. Me, of course, being more aggressive, putting my teammates into spots where they can score. That’s what I try to bring every night.”
Schröder was obviously disappointed he didn’t land that career-defining deal as a free agent this summer. After an uneven season with the Lakers, he was considered a second-tier free agent and in the new economic NBA, that has essentially eliminated the middle class, meaning some really good players are going to get shortchanged when the market dries.
That’s what happened with Schröder. The Lakers went after Westbrook. The Wizards signed Spencer Dinwiddie. The Chicago Bulls chased Lonzo Ball. The Miami Heat traded for Kyle Lowry, leaving Schröder to accept about $15 million less than he expected to earn this season.
Known as a player who speaks his mind and is supremely confident, Schröder has tried to blend into the Celtics’ system without making waves. Coach Ime Udoka brought Schröder off the bench – similar to two years ago when he flourished in Oklahoma City – and then played him key fourth-quarter minutes.
With Jaylen Brown out with a strained hamstring, Schröder has become a starter, pairing with Marcus Smart for one of the more fiery backcourt combinations in the league. The two have worked well together, with Schröder taking some of the ball-handling and playmaking duties while also taking opportunities to score.
“He’s finding his way,” Udoka said. “He’s bringing his bench role to the starting lineup. He’s played very aggressive. We liked some of the matchups he had early and he got going. We felt he was penetrating and making nice passes, so he was doing a little bit of both (passing and scoring). And then he got going late and we rode his hand there.”
For a few years, the Celtics have been searching for that depending third scorer behind Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Kemba Walker filled that role on occasion but not often enough. President of basketball operations Brad Stevens added Schröder and Josh Richardson in the offseason to bring more scoring punch from the backcourt.
If Schröder can become that dependable secondary scorer, the Celtics will compete for one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference. He’s that important of a player to the team’s offensive arsenal because it takes the pressure off Tatum and Brown.
For example, Tatum did not score in overtime and attempted one shot. Usually, that combination means a guaranteed loss for the Celtics. Schröder’s primary strength is his ability to score from three, at the rim and in the midrange. When he gets going, he’s a real issue for the defense.
In the first three weeks of the season, Schröder has struggled to find his shot and some of his court decisions have been questionable. He’s averaged 29 points over the past two games but also has committed 14 turnovers, including six Friday.
But this is the Schröder experience. It was one of the reasons the Atlanta Hawks moved him to Oklahoma City and drafted Trae Young. It’s the reason the Los Angeles Lakers wanted him to lead their offense. But it’s also the reason why the Lakers eventually determined he was a poor fit for their offense.
In Boston, Schröder could be an ideal fit if he can run the offense with efficiency and score when he’s open. He was at his best Friday, and the Celtics sorely needed that. It didn’t matter if Antetokounmpo and Middleton were out, they need a win and Schröder picked the appropriate time to find his comfort zone for the first time.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.