Celtics

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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NBA Notebook: The global expansion of the league MVP race

NBA Notebook: The global expansion of the league MVP race

BOSTON -- The MVP race is just starting to heat up with no shortage of candidates. 

There are the usual suspects in the mix this season as well as a few unfamiliar faces like Boston’s Kemba Walker according to NBA.com’s Sekou Smith (SPOILER ALERT: He’s got Kemba pretty damn high on his list. Check out the link and see why).

Still, this season's race has a strong international flavor at the top, headlined by the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks with Dallas’ Luka Doncic right on his heels.

Not only does Antetokounmpo have the Bucks rolling atop the Eastern Conference standings at a league-best record  19-3, but the Greek sensation is putting up numbers that are even better than they were a year ago when he won the award. 

Antetokounmpo is looking to be the first repeat winner of the award since Golden State’s Stephen Curry (2015 and 2016) and so far, he’s making it damn difficult for all comers. 

He joined Dirk Nowitzki (2007) as the only international player to win the league MVP award with no prior college basketball experience in the United States. 

And just like Antetokounmpo has taken the league by storm in recent years, Doncic is doing much of the same now as he tries to build off last season’s Rookie of the Year campaign. 

But this season, the 20-year-old has taken his game to another level. 

The reigning Western Conference player of the month, Doncic is averaging 30.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists - numbers that no player this young has averaged in a single season. 

Those include seven triple-doubles, which equals the NBA record for triple-doubles in a season for a player this young. 

When you look at the numbers and that the Mavericks (11-6) are among the better teams in the West, Doncic’s MVP candidacy is real. 

“The MVP race so far kind of reflects how the league as a whole is looking this year,” a league executive told NBC Sports Boston. “It just feels a lot more wide open now than it has in past years. But those two guys, Giannis and Luka, are special talents. I suspect we’ll be talking about them and the MVP race for years to come. Their both really young, really good players who are great for the league and for their respective teams.”

LET’S TRY THIS REPLAY CHALLENGE ONE MORE TIME

The NBA has been abuzz with talk of officiating after the Houston Rockets protested a call at San Antonio that was incorrect and in hindsight, was critical in their overtime loss to the Spurs. Well, Houston was involved in yet another questionable late-game call they did not agree with. It came in Toronto on Thursday. 

Different game, different outcome. 

The Rockets, challenging a foul called against Austin Rivers with 1:14 to play that would have put the Raptors' Fred VanVleet at the free-throw line with three shots to potentially make it a one-possession game, had the call on the floor overturned. 

And moments after gaining possession after winning the challenge, Russell Westbrook scored to seal Houston’s 119-109 victory. 

OLYNYK'S IMPACT ON TWO FRANCHISES REMEMBERED

Miami Heat center Kelly Olynyk returned to Boston this week, the place where his watershed moment in the NBA occurred.

Even though it has been a couple of years since he played for the Celtics, folks still recall how he carried them to a Game 7 win over Washington in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals with 26 points in 28 minutes.

Not only did it set him up for a big payday (four years, $50 million) that summer, but it also sent two franchises in completely different directions. Boston has been a mainstay among the top teams in the East since then, while the Wizards have steadily descended into becoming a basketball afterthought.

“That summer, everything got shaken up,” Olynyk told NBC Sports Boston. “Washington had some injury troubles and stuff, and for us, we all got shook up that summer; basically our whole team was gone. We had a great group of guys that year. We loved playing with each other and playing for one another. Coach [Brad] Stevens did a real good job; we just gelled. It was a fun team to be a part of.”

KNICKS' ISSUE IS TALENT, NOT COACHING

This has been a rough season for David Fizdale and the New York Knicks, currently owning an eight-game losing streak following a 129-92 beatdown at home to the Denver Nuggets. The Knicks have lost their last two games by a combined 81 points which serves as one of the largest two-game margins of defeat in NBA history. 

We have seen this story play out time and time again, often ending with the coach being fired which is exactly what happened on Friday, according to multiple reports.

But what’s often lost in the Knicks struggles, is the fact that they are using players who are talent-wise, far below those that they were vigorously pursuing. 

Remember they cleared all that salary cap space with the intent being to land one or two of the bigger-name free agents out there, only to strike out with all of them. 

Rather than having some combination of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard, they have Julius Randle, Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris Sr. who are all good players but … they ain’t Irving, Durant or Leonard. 

And that lack of elite, next-level talent more than anything else, is why the Knicks are one of the worst teams in the NBA and won't be that much better now that Fizdale has been fired.  

MELO'S DEAL FULLY GUARANTEED

Based on how Carmelo Anthony has played and his impact on what matters most to teams - winning - word about Melo’s contract being fully guaranteed by the Portland Trail Blazers was no surprise.

Signed to a partially guaranteed deal on Nov. 14, Melo has been instrumental in the Blazers’ rebirth from a team looking lottery-bound to one that looks a lot more like the crew that’s hoping to get back to the Western Conference finals. 

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After losing the first three games with Melo, Portland has won four of its past five and are just 1.5 games behind Phoenix for the eighth spot in the West. 

He’s showing that while he may not be as explosive a scorer as he once was, he can still get buckets and help a Portland team in desperate need of more offensive punch. 

LEBRON ON THE "PRETTY BAD" TRAVELING CALL

It’s not the norm for NBA players to snitch on themselves when the referees miss a call against them. But LeBron James really didn’t have a choice when asked about the blatantly obvious travel at Utah that the entire world saw and has become yet another James-inspired, meme-worthy moment. “It was the worst thing, probably one of the worst things I’ve ever done in my career,” James told reporters afterward before adding, “I feel bad for the refs on that one because they’ll probably get a write-up on that or something. That was pretty bad.”

FAST BREAKS

  • We’ll finally get to see the MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo face the NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard Friday night when the Milwaukee Bucks host the Los Angeles Clippers. The two were supposed to face off earlier this season, but the Clippers elected to give Leonard the night off for “load management” purposes. The NBA later fined the Clippers $50,000 because of comments made by coach Doc Rivers that according to the league, “were inconsistent with Leonard’s health status.”
  • The Brooklyn Nets are better talent-wise with Kyrie Irving, but in terms of wins? With him this season, they are 4-7. In the games he has missed, they are 7-3. 
  • Former Celtic guard Shane Larkin continues to assert himself as the best overseas talent not currently in the NBA, recently setting a Euroleague record with 49 points (in just 31 minutes) in Anadolu Efes Istanbul’s 103-75 win over FC Bayern Munich. Look for him on an NBA roster next season. 
  • Most Improved candidates to keep an eye on include New Orleans’ Brandon Ingram; the Celtics' Jaylen Brown; Minnesota’s Andrew Wiggins; Charlotte’s Devonte Graham and Toronto’s Fred VanVleet.
  • BLAKELY'S POWER RANKINGS: Western Conference elite again setting the pace

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Nuggets, which tips off Friday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Tommy have the call at 8 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Boston Celtics vs. Denver Nuggets live stream: Watch NBA game online

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Boston Celtics vs. Denver Nuggets live stream: Watch NBA game online

The Boston Celtics came up just short the last time they faced the Denver Nuggets. They'll get a shot at revenge Friday night at TD Garden.

During the C's West-Coast road trip in November, Boston fell to Denver 96-92. More notable than the game itself was Kemba Walker going down with a scary neck injury and being taken off the court on a stretcher. Fortunately, Walker turned out OK and will look to lead the Celtics to a W in front of the home crowd.

Boston is coming off a 112-93 victory over the Miami Heat on Wednesday night in which Jaylen Brown dropped 31 points and Walker added 28.

Be sure to tune into NBC Sports Boston for Celtics Pregame Live at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the game at 8 p.m. ET or stream it via the MyTeams app. 

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ANALYSIS AND REACTION

BEFORE THE GAME: At 7 p.m., Celtics Pregame Live presented by TD Bank gets you ready for the game with reports from Kyle Draper, Chris MannixMike Gorman, Brian Scalabrine, A. Sherrod Blakely, Chris Forsberg, and Abby Chin. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream.

AT HALFTIME: Tune in to watch a breakdown of the first two quarters on Halftime Live presented by Ace Ticket. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream.

AFTER THE GAME: As soon as the game ends, tune to Celtics Postgame Live presented by New England Ford for analysis, commentary and player reaction. Watch on NBC Sports Boston or click here for the live stream

Questions on our livestream? Get all your questions answered here on our Streaming FAQ.

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