Brad Stevens: Celtics need 'tougher mental mindset'

Brad Stevens: Celtics need 'tougher mental mindset'

BOSTON – This Boston Celtics team was built to compete for a title in large part because of the talent that Danny Ainge and company assembled.

We’re 16 games into the season, and it’s not the talent that’s in question – it’s the team’s mental toughness.

Saturday’s 98-86 loss to Utah, Boston’s second defeat at the hands of the Jazz this month, wasn’t about another team having a great night at both ends of the floor.

It wasn’t about a superstar player having a game for the ages.

The Utah Jazz, playing the second night of a back-to-back just like the Celtics, simply played a more physical game.

And when it mattered, it was their mental toughness that prevailed.

Following the loss, it’s clear that the team’s inability to sustain any level of mental toughness for a long stretch of time, was among the many things at the forefront of his thoughts.

“We have to build a tougher team mindset than we have,” Stevens said. “I mean, we just don’t have that mindset yet that we need.”

And that is a disturbing commentary when you consider that this team by and large, is the same team that Stevens had a year ago.

Actually, this group should be even better when you consider Kyrie Irving is in a much better state health-wise, and Gordon Hayward is continuing to inch closer to the All-Star player we knew prior to suffering a season-ending injury in the season-opener last year.

Despite the rise in overall talent, Boston (9-7) finds itself just two games over-.500 when so many anticipated they would run away with the Eastern Conference now that LeBron James has taken his talents to La-La land.

“We have to find ways to be good every night,” said Boston’s Gordon Hayward. “I felt like, we found a way to win (Friday) night (versus Toronto). It was an emotional win for us. Great teams bring it the next night. So, we have to be better.”

The concerns about mental toughness for this team manifest themselves, at least they did on Saturday, in how they handled a slew of missed shots that were open as well as contested looks.

Heads began to slump, eyes began to roll and for no significant period of time were they able to put their shooting troubles aside and do what you’re supposed to do in those situations – keep playing rather than sulk.

Boston shot below 40 percent from the field in every quarter except for the second as they connected on just 38.5 percent of their shots for the game.

Making a bad game even worse for Boston, was that their best scorer Kyrie Irving was in major foul trouble. He picked up his fifth personal foul in the third quarter at the 5:12 mark.

He returned in the fourth quarter and wound up leading the Celtics with 20 points, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the struggles of just about every other Boston scorer which is evident by the team’s No. 2 scorer for Saturday being Jayson Tatum who had just 10 points.

Regardless of whether you buy the mental toughness as an issue theory, one thing is abundantly clear with this Celtics team.

The things that they do well, are not being done consistently enough or with the kind of focus and fight that championship-caliber teams display.

And with those struggles have come what appears to be a gradual erosion of the team’s overall confidence.

“Maybe there’s something there, with that,” Stevens said. “I think there’s a lot of things that it could be, but at the end of the day, you know, you build confidence through doing hard things over and over and over, because that’s your focus. That’s your intent. Your job is your focus. You know what you’re supposed to do.

Stevens added, “you perform every assignment, you do it physically, you do it tough, and then all of a sudden, the ball goes in. It’s just kind of funny how it works. The game honors it.”

The bright spot: If there's a coach equipped to get the Celtics back on track, it's Stevens. Just ask his former player, Jazz forward Jae Crowder.

"Whatever they’re lacking, they can build as the season goes on," Crowder said Saturday night. "They just have to believe it, and believe in Brad. He’s able to bring that out of guys."

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Celtics Talk Podcast: Can Jayson Tatum be a championship team's best player in 2020?

Celtics Talk Podcast: Can Jayson Tatum be a championship team's best player in 2020?

Expectations are very high for the Boston Celtics with the NBA's restart taking place later this month at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

The Celtics have become a popular pick as a team that could make a deep run in the 2020 NBA playoffs, and potentially reach the NBA Finals.

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NBA legend and six-time champion Scottie Pippen said earlier this week on ESPN's "The Jump" that Celtics star Jayson Tatum already is capable of being the best player on a championship-caliber team. Tatum is in the midst of a breakout year, and he's leading the team in scoring at 23.6 points per game. The 22-year-old forward is making a tremendous impact on defense, too, which helps illustrate the exciting two-way skill set he's consistently built on since entering the league in 2017-18.

What do our experts think of Pippen's claim? NBC Sports Boston's Celtics insiders A. Sherrod Blakely and Chris Forsberg, along with Kyle Draper, discussed this topic on the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast.

"I think he will be. I don't think he's that dude right now. Not right now," Blakely said. "I just think there are too many obstacles in his way that I think will keep him from being that guy right now.

Which obstacles?

"Let's see, some guy named LeBron James and Anthony Davis. There's this guy in MIlwaukee who I hear is pretty good. There's a couple guys in Philadelpia who -- they could make things a little complicated as well," Blakely said. "Tatum is going to be that guy. I'm not seeing he won't be that guy. I think he will. I just don't think he's that guy right now."

Celtics Talk Podcast: Can Tatum be a title team's best player? | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

Forsberg had a different take.

"The last time I saw Jayson Tatum, he was that guy," Forsberg said. "Look, is it fair to think he'll pick up on quite that level, I don't know. But I think a lot of people forgot Kemba Walker was hurt with the way Tatum played over the final two months. I think it is asking a lot of him to get back to that level -- I don't think he's going to average 30 points per game and shoot 50 percent from 3-point land. And yet I do think if the Celtics are going to go anywhere, it does rely on Jayson Tatum being the best player. Kemba has to be very good, but Tatum has to be your best guy, and bring his two-way impact if (the Celtics) are going to reach those lofty goals."

Tatum proved he could be the leading player on a very good team during his rookie season when he nearly led the Celtics to an upset win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals. He's a better player now than he was in 2018, but the East as a whole also is a lot stronger today.

It's probably a little too early to definitively say Tatum is already capable of being the best player on a championship contender, but if he plays anywhere close to the level we saw from him in February and early March, it wouldn't be surprising if the young star led Boston on a deep playoff run later this summer.

Check out the latest episode of the Celtics Talk Podcast or watch it on YouTube below.

Marcus Smart has extremely high praise for Celtics' Jayson Tatum ahead of NBA restart

Marcus Smart has extremely high praise for Celtics' Jayson Tatum ahead of NBA restart

How high is Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum's ceiling? One of his teammates thinks he has the potential to be one of the all-time greats.

Marcus Smart has watched Tatum grow quite a bit since his rookie season in 2017-18, and he's optimistic that the young star has an incredibly bright future ahead of him in the NBA.

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Smart told reporters Tuesday in a video conference call that he really knew Tatum was going to be something special during the Celtics' improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2018.

"I would probably say the playoffs in his rookie year. Just the impact he had, just the confidence he played with, and the mindset that he played with, you could definitely see that this guy was going to be special," Smart said. "He was 20 or 21 at the time. It's tremendous to see his progression, aiming for the stars and shooting for the moon, literally, that's him. The things he's capable of on the offensive end. “I think (one thing that's) a little under-talked about is his defensive end. He’s 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan. He’s actually sitting down and guarding guys, let alone coming down on the offensive end and doing what he’s doing.”

"I just think that he's on the right track to becoming, like I said, if not the best, one of the best players to ever do this in this game."

It's not every day that a player receives this kind of praise, and while Tatum still has a very, very long way to go before he can be mentioned alongside the game's greatest players, it's easy to see why people are so excited about what lies ahead for him.

Tatum has shown fantastic improvement this season, highlighted by his first All-Star Game appearance and earning Eastern Conference Player of the Month for February. He leads the Celtics in scoring with 23.6 points per game, and he's also on pace to set career highs in rebounds per game, assists per game, steals per game, blocks per game and more. 

If the Celtics are going to make a deep run and potentially reach the 2020 NBA Finals -- and some experts think they're capable of winning the East -- Tatum will need to take his game to an even higher level on the league's brightest stage. Based on what we've seen so far from Tatum during the 2019-20 season, there are reasons to be confident he's capable of meeting that challenge.