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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