The sign of an elite team is not only how it responds to adversity but how it handles prosperity. Just 24 hours after a celebratory tone filled the Celtics locker room following Friday night’s overtime victory over the Toronto Raptors, there was silence and confusion after an abysmal 98-86 loss to the Utah Jazz on Saturday night at TD Garden.
Back-to-back home games are rare and the Celtics had to put away their streamers and pom-poms after their Toronto win and concentrate on a team that had just beaten them a week ago. They were unable to deal with such praise, unable to come back a day later and play even average basketball.
The loss to the Jazz was a putrid effort, filled with mental lapses, inexcusable turnovers and mass lethargy. The Jazz played Friday night in Philadelphia, losing a tough game to the 76ers, yet they looked more energetic, more engaged and more polished.
The Celtics? They missed 28 of 33 3-point attempts, committed 14 turnovers (many unforced) and missed nine free throws. It was as if they were resigned to defeat in the opening minutes of the second quarter when the Jazz twice extended their lead to 12 (34-22 and 36-24).
After Derrick Favors threw down alley-oop dunks off feeds from three different Jazz players in a span of 2:53 in the fourth quarter, Brad Stevens sent a clear message and pulled Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford with 8:07 left and the Celtics trailing, 83-68.
If the Celtics were going to rally, three starters who had played listlessly, were going to watch from the bench. As they should have.
“We needed energy,” Stevens 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. We just needed other guys out there. Or, at least, that’s what I felt.”
So Stevens benched his two maximum salary players and potential cornerstone for three guys who would relish the opportunity to play and not take anything for granted.
The Celtics aren’t promised a spot in the NBA Finals. They aren’t even promised the playoffs at this point. And it’s not that they aren’t playing hard or tanking when times are difficult. The Celtics are a team that thrives when shots go in and then get discouraged when they don’t.
There were numerous times Saturday when Terry Rozier or Brown had a chance to regain momentum with a big shot. Brown, whose subpar start is beginning to become a concern, missed eight of his nine shots. Rozier, who saw a big payday coming next summer as a restricted free agent, continues to befuddle. He went 2 for 9, missing all six of his 3-point attempts.
Brown is shooting 36.2 percent for the season and 27.3 from the 3-point line. Rozier is at 36.6 and 33.9 from the arc. When those shots aren’t going down, they become dispirited.
Brown had a clear path to the basket early in the fourth, drove aggressively and the just flat-out missed the layup. He just looked dazed running back down the floor.
There’s something wrong with the Celtics and Stevens has to try to figure it out. He kept alluding to toughness and players never wanting to hear they’re not tough enough. They never want their fortitude or resolve challenged, but it should be because on Saturday, they capitulated to the Jazz.
“There’s a collectiveness that we need to have, team effort and attitude, no matter what is going on in the game,” Kyrie Irving said. “I just think that also the inconsistency that we’ve been showcasing, too, it can be frustrating as a coach, as well as a player. You expect to play at a certain level. Coach just wants us to go play hard for him and he deserves that. I don’t blame him for saying we’re lacking toughness at that point.”
What’s most disappointing about this uneven beginning to the season is the Celtics have as much talent as any team East of Golden State. Thereare so many scorers and playmakers on this squad there shouldn’t be any trouble with offense.
But the problem is the players who were most involved in that playoff run last season — primarily Rozier and Brown — are trying to do the same things without the same success. Meanwhile, their teammates are trying to solve all their problems with the 3-pointer.
It seemed as if the Celtics were afraid to challenge Utah’s 7-foot-1 inch Rudy Gobert at the rim, so they stopped trying. Once they couldn’t score with ease at the rim, the Celtics resorted to jump shots, and they missed, too.
So a weekend that had so much potential to jumpstart the Celtics’ season turned into adud. The lasting impression from it all was the coach calling out his team for its apparent lack of toughness and players wondering whether they actually have what it takes to win an NBA title.
It’s going to take every player to ask himself whether he is truly doing everything possible to make that happen.
The Celtics may be trying to get by on their talent alone. They are the C-plus student with the potential to make A’s but aren’t willing to put in the work in the study hall to reach that level.
So far, the Celtics have been one big tease, doing little with so much enormous talent.