SALT LAKE CITY — The Celtics walked out of Vivint Arena Tuesday with a five-hour flight to ponder what exactly they accomplished on this five-game Western trip. And the answer is, not much.
The Celtics return to Boston having lost three of the five games, including a predictable 122-108 loss to the best-in-the-NBA Utah Jazz. What’s apparent is that the Celtics are missing something. Well, they are missing a lot of things.
And in the end, the Jazz showboated, with Donovan Mitchell splashing threes and egging on the crowd of 3,903 while Rudy Gobert completed two jarring dunks in the final minute as if he were playing against children as the Celtics let go of the rope.
One player who seemingly has had enough is forward Jaylen Brown, who scored 33 points in his return from a two-game absence with a sore knee. The Celtics got bullied the past two games, and the Jazz punctuated their victory by scoring 74 points in the second half.
“We [expletive] should take it personally,” Brown said. “The fourth quarter was embarrassing. That’s the time we are supposed to be our grittiest, and it seems like we just fell apart, in a sense.
“And that’s a lack of toughness and a lack of leadership, and a lot of that is on me. As a leader of this team, I take responsibility for how we respond and how we come out, and in the fourth quarter, it just wasn’t there for us.”
There are a plethora of issues that need to be addressed soon, because the Celtics are just flat average right now.
Kemba Walker is still playing terribly, evidenced by his 6-for-32 shooting in the last two games, when the Celtics desperately needed a scorer to support Jayson Tatum and Brown. Coach Brad Stevens is trying to offer support and encouragement for Walker, but his performance is discouraging.
Walker snapped an 0-for-17 slump on 2-point shots and is now becoming offensively hesitant because he doesn’t feel he can finish or get to the free throw line.
They need another difference-making defender because Stevens, with limited options, is putting players in spots where they have no chance to succeed. The Celtics are just expecting too much from Grant Williams, who for the second time on the trip committed a costly off-ball foul that put a good free throw shooter at the line when the Celtics were trying to complete a rally.
Williams is trying, but he’s being asked to guard bigger players, stronger players, and more skilled players. And he’s making inexperienced mistakes.
The bench doesn’t provide scoring; Walker is being targeted on defense and the Celtics get stops but then give up offensive rebounds and second-chance points. There were several occasions Tuesday when the Celtics just forgot to defend a shooter.
The question the Celtics have to ask themselves is: Did they contain any of the Jazz’s weapons? The answer is no. Joe Ingles scored 24 points, including 10 free throws, which was a career high. What’s more, Ingles had attempted 15 free throws all season and had not attempted more than two in a game.
In one sequence, with the Celtics down 4, Mitchell tippy-toed around a Gobert screen and swished an uncontested 3-pointer for a critical basket. Where’s the defensive blitz? Where’s the help? The Celtics played like a discouraged bunch late in the game because they can only depend on Tatum and Brown to score.
They are a Cadillac body running on a Yugo engine, and it affects the defense because they constantly go through scoring skids. Not that the defense doesn’t deserve serious blame when Ingles and Bojan Bogdanovic — who aren’t exactly Russell Westbrook and De’Aaron Fox — are taking their defenders off the dribble and getting to the rim. Bogdanovic had two drive-and-dunks in the first half; he had two previous dunks all season.
If you can’t defend off the dribble, then you’re going to give up the open three to teams that share the ball well and have shooters. Utah has both. The Jazz put as many as four shooters on the floor to surround the 7-foot-2-inch Gobert, and the Celtics spent the evening chasing them.
Mitchell, a franchise cornerstone, embarrassed the Celtics with 24 of his 36 points in the second half. Walker finished with 7 points, so how do we expect the Celtics to win a game with the point guard disparity so large?
Again, Walker isn’t the only one to blame, but the Celtics just watched what a connected team looks like, and they are far from being cohesive. The win against the Clippers Friday was perhaps the best of the season, but it means little when they follow it up with two disappointing losses.
The hope is that the Celtics learn something from Tuesday’s drubbing, take away pointers from the NBA’s best team, and apply them quickly because they are just flat average right now. There is nothing elite about the Celtics.
“The flow they have to their team is really good right now,” Brown said of the Jazz. “We’ve got to find a better flow for ourselves because we have some disconnectedness at times and the game almost seems like it’s a little bit harder than it should be.
“If we just trust each other, be in the right spots, the game will be a lot easier than what it has been for us and a lot games that we should be in, we’re not.
“You could see the difference between Utah and us tonight, even though we got some opportunities to take the lead. But you can definitely see they have a smooth flow to their team right now.”