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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LeBron James' casual comment to Dwyane Wade is torturing Knicks fans

LeBron James' casual comment to Dwyane Wade is torturing Knicks fans

Did the New York Knicks blow a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

We'll never know for sure, but listen closely to this quick line Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James dropped to Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade on Monday night at Staples Center in the final meeting between the two longtime friends and former teammates.

"I appreciate you ending it here," Wade says, to which James responds, "It was either here or the Garden, that's it. That's the only place we could've ended it at, man."

No, LeBron isn't talking about flowers (or the Boston Celtics' TD Garden).

James seems to be suggesting the only two teams he would have joined last offseason ahead of he and Wade's final matchup -- Wade is retiring after this season -- were the Lakers and ... the Knicks, who play in Madison Square Garden.

Let's check in on Knicks fans:

ESPN's Brian Windhorst tried to console the New York faithful by insisting James likely was going to L.A. anyway -- but essentially added insult to injury with this unsavory nugget about ex-Knicks president Phil Jackson.

... At least the Knicks could have a shot at Kevin Durant in free agency?

In any case, teams like the Celtics are glad James decided to take his act to the West Coast and free up what should be a very competitive Eastern Conference.

UPDATE (8:50 a.m. ET): James addressed his comment to Wade after the game, insisting he wasn't referencing signing with the Knicks. (Or was he just covering his tracks?)

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Robert Williams raises Brows with performance vs Pelicans

Robert Williams raises Brows with performance vs Pelicans

BOSTON — From the end of the Boston bench, a suit-coat clad Aron Baynes swung his arm vigorously in celebration. Next to him, a blazer-wearing Al Horford did a double fist pump. Soon, Kyrie Irving rose to his feet and applauded the sequence in front of him.

Robert Williams had just swatted New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis for the second time in Monday’s game, the Celtics rookie somehow leaping high enough early in the fourth quarter to smother Davis’ fadeaway attempt almost the instant it left his hand.

Most nights it’s Williams on the bench, oozing his palpable joy as the Celtics regulars compete. But, on a night in which half of Boston’s regulars were sidelined, it was the veterans who reveled in the best game of the rookie’s young career.

"There’s not too many guys in the league that can block Anthony Davis’ shot,” said Marcus Morris. That alone is special. And he showed that a few times.

“He’s a young guy and, once he really learns and once he really gets out there and has time to play, he’s going to be a beast.”

With Boston’s frontcourt decimated by injuries, with Horford (knee), Baynes (ankle), and Guerschon Yabusele (ankle) all sidelined for the visit from the Pelicans, the Celtics ran Williams for 26 minutes — or just a few minutes less than he had played through the first nine games of his NBA career. 

The extremely active rookie responded with 7 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks in Boston’s 113-100 triumph at TD Garden. And it was the two rejections of Davis, bookending Williams’ night, that left everyone in the building buzzing about his potential.

Even Davis.

“[Williams is] good. He’s talented. A good defensive player,” Davis said after scoring a game-high 41 points but on 34 shots. "He got another [block] at the other end late in the second half. I just tried to change it up a little bit but I was surprised he got the first one.”

A minute after Williams checked in late in the first quarter, Davis caught the ball on the blocks. With a left-handed dribble into the paint, Davis tried to get the rookie off his feet but Williams stayed planted. Davis then rose, looking for a little left-handed hook but Williams leaped to contest and managed to swat the shot the other way off his fingertips.

Before the game, Williams, a Louisiana native, had showered Davis with praise. But also noted, “He’s my opponent. . … I’m just focusing on playing defense the way the coaches want us to play defense.”

Williams, who has embraced the nickname of Time Lord bestowed upon him by Boston’s ravenous Twitter fan base after a couple of tardiness issues at the start of his Celtics tenure, has earned heavy hype despite a limited role. His raw athleticism — unlike anything these often low-to-the-ground Celtics have seen in recent seasons — and his loud alley-oop finishes quickly endured him to fans.

Williams is averaging a robust 1.25 points per play, according to Synergy Sports offensive data, feasting on dunks and putbacks while only straying from the basket to set screens. Synergy defensive data has Williams allowing a mere 0.70 points per play, albeit on a minuscule sample (30 possessions defended). Still, Synergy data suggests opponents are shooting a mere 26.1 percent against him, a crazy number even for someone feasting on trash-time reps, particularly when you consider how often he was matched up with Davis on Monday.

As much as Williams' blocks will dominate the highlight reel, Davis did have his moments against the rookie. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens deadpanned after the game, “Well, he held him to 41.” But Stevens was just as quick to praise Williams for his relentless energy and effort.

"I thought Robert did a lot of good things,” said Stevens. “When you’re shooting jumpers and Robert’s in the vicinity, you feel him. When you’re shooting around the rim and he’s in the vicinity, you feel him. And I think he can improve a lot but I thought he did a really good job.”

Stevens has shown unwavering faith in the rookie, even after his transgressions like a missed flight that left him absent for the team’s first summer league practice. Williams has atoned with a fierce work ethic — and an apartment next to the team’s sparkling new practice facility. Williams is eager to please and Celtics executives wonder if the bumps in the road after draft day ultimately put Williams on a path to succeed.

If nothing else, Williams’ personality is lighting up the Celtics’ locker room. Veterans have put him in charge of the music. And Williams never seems to stop smiling. He has a propensity to curse and is the first to poke fun at himself.

Like before Monday's game when a reporter offered congratulations on the recent birth of his daughter. Williams deadpanned, "She looks just like me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing.”

One thing is for certain, the Celtics liked the way Williams looked on Monday.

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