With 8 minutes, 58 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ game against the Jazz on Saturday night at TD Garden, coach Brad Stevens inserted Brad Wanamaker, Guerschon Yabusele and Daniel Theis to join Semi Ojeleye and Kyrie Irving on the floor.
The Celtics trailed by 18 points at the time, and surrounding Irving with third-stringers seemed a curious move, especially given this team’s propensity for crafting stirring comebacks. But Stevens had just watched the Jazz throw down three alley-oop dunks over a three-minute stretch. He had seen enough.
“We needed energy,” he said. “We weren’t going anywhere with what we were doing, so it was better just to mix it up. See if those guys could bring us some live legs, and let’s go.”
That unusual lineup did bring a burst of energy, but the Celtics needed more than that on this lousy night, as they were handed a dispiriting 98-86 loss that was more lopsided than it looks.
The defeat came just 24 hours after Boston grabbed its most impressive win of this season, an overtime victory against the first-place Raptors, a win that convinced some players that they were indeed ready to start rolling.
But the Celtics’ start to this expectation-filled season has been sullied by inconsistency, and this was perhaps the most glaring example. Grit and mental toughness have been two staples of Stevens’s teams since he arrived in Boston, and after this loss, he questioned those qualities in this group.
“We have to build a tougher team mind-set than we have,” he said. “We just don’t have that mind-set yet that we need.”
In the locker room later, the Celtics did not really dispute Stevens’s claims or concerns. They understand it is not supposed to be like this.
“There are times where we play really tough and then we just, for whatever reason, have moments in the game that turn into extended moments when we’re not,” Gordon Hayward said. “Then, before you know it, it’s been a quarter and a half and we haven’t been playing our best basketball.”
Added Irving: “Coach just wants us to go play hard for him, and he deserves that. So I don’t blame him for saying we’re lacking toughness.”
The Celtics’ long-range shooting was dismal. Boston made just 5 of 33 3-pointers and 11 of 20 free throws. According to basketball-reference.com, this was just the second time in NBA history that a team had 3-point and free-throw percentages this low in a game in which it attempted at least 25 threes.
Plenty of the missed shots were open, and plenty were followed by sighs and frustrated looks.
“It could be a little deflating,” Irving said, “because we all expect a wide-open three to go in, and a nice play, an aggressive drive-and-kick, to go in. And it just doesn’t happen.”
Irving, the Celtics’ most reliable 3-point shooter, attempted just 2 of the team’s 33. Terry Rozier was 0 for 6, Marcus Morris was 0 for 4, Jaylen Brown was 1 for 6. The list goes on.
“Those are just draining emotionally,” Hayward said. “You have to block that out. That’s part of being a tougher team, so when you miss shots, you still do the right thing on the other end.”
The only good news for the Celtics is that they are done playing the Jazz this season. They lost in Utah on Nov. 9, and they lost in Boston on Saturday, but there will be no more damage from this team moving forward.
Irving led the Celtics with 20 points and eight rebounds but received minimal help. Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, one night removed from making 1 of 11 3-pointers in a loss to the 76ers, made five 3-pointers on Saturday and scored a game-high 28 points.
It was the second game in two nights for both teams, and there were times it was apparent. The start was filled with turnovers and missed free throws and some general malaise.
The difference was that Utah eventually found a way out of its funk, while the Celtics did not. The Jazz led at halftime, 50-45, and then Mitchell helped them extend the advantage in the third quarter.
He hit two 3-pointers over a 40-second span, then with 5:40 left drew Irving’s fourth foul, while attempting a 3-pointer. Mitchell made all three foul shots to give his team a 68-55 lead. Just 28 seconds later, Irving collected his fifth foul when he bumped Ricky Rubio, and he went to the bench for the rest of the quarter.
“It just wasn’t smart on my end,” Irving said.
The other Celtics, meanwhile, could do nothing to help. Time and again, 3-point attempts and foul shots clanged off the rim, and those issues were exacerbated by mental errors. Late in the quarter, Marcus Smart committed a turnover and then committed a clear-path foul, giving Utah two free throws and the ball. A minute later, Rozier missed a pair of free throws, and then committed a frustration foul 50 feet from the hoop.
Then early in the fourth, with his team trailing by 18 and looking lifeless, Stevens made the decision to go deep into his bench.
“It was frustrating, because I wanted to be out there, and still fight,” Al Horford said. “But coach had a better feel for the game. As a competitor I want to stay in and do what I can. But he felt like we really weren’t going anywhere.”