As Danny Ainge began reconstructing the Celtics’ roster four years ago, he put a clear premium on tough, gritty players who took slights and losses personally. They did not have superstar-level talent, but they certainly would not back down when going against opponents that did.
The identity of this Celtics team is a bit different. Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford have all been All-Stars, and most believe Jayson Tatum will also join that list sooner rather than later. But every team has its own identity, and so far these Celtics have not quite been bulldogs.
After his team’s humbling 98-86 loss to the Jazz at TD Garden on Saturday night, coach Brad Stevens repeatedly referenced an apparent lack of toughness. And in the locker room later, the players mostly agreed with his assessment.
So I went to the visitors’ locker room and found Jae Crowder, who became one of the key pieces of Boston’s reinvention when he arrived in January 2015. Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Isaiah Thomas oozed toughness and grit. I asked Crowder how they established that identity.
“I just felt like we just said, ‘Forget what the outside is talking about. We’re going to play how we want to play. We’re going to dictate the game how we want to dictate it and deal with the losses and learn from them and come out and try to give our best effort,’ ” Crowder said. “I feel like effort is something that was always there with us. Sometimes we fell short, but the effort was always there. I think it came from our leadership, from Al [Horford] and I.T. and myself. We just wanted the best from everybody. We wanted everyone to play their hardest and play their best.”
It’s worth noting that despite Stevens’s frustration and the team’s slow start, Boston still has the top-ranked defense in the NBA. It is not as if the team is curling into a ball as opponents throttle them with dunks from all angles. The bigger issue has been shot-making. Nevertheless, Stevens knows what he wants to see, and right now he is not seeing it.
“Whatever they’re lacking, they can build as the season goes on,” Crowder said. “They just have to believe it, and believe in Brad. He’s able to bring that out of guys.”
■ Jaylen Brown’s offensive struggles have been perplexing. After going 1 for 9 from the field against Utah, Brown is now shooting 36.2 percent overall, 27.3 percent on 3-pointers, and 64.5 percent from the foul line. His field goal percentages are in the bottom five in the NBA among players who have taken at least 150 shots and 50 3-pointers.
The only thing that has really changed since last season is that Hayward is on the court now, and Brown has mentioned several times that he is still learning to play with him. Here is some proof: Hayward and Brown have been on the court together for 250 minutes and the Celtics have a minus-3.1 net rating during that time, the worst mark among Boston’s 20 most-used two-man pairings.
■ The Celtics haven’t had some of the crisp, urgent ball movement that is clearly visible when their offense is truly humming. One example of that: In Saturday’s loss, the Jazz threw 270 passes while Boston had just 230.
■ One emerging mantra for the Celtics this season is that they have been getting the open shots they are seeking, but they are just not making them, and that once they start making them, things will be just fine. According to the NBA’s tracking data, Irving made 5 of 6 uncontested field goals against Utah, while the rest of the team was just 8 for 37.
■ One more thought about Crowder: There was a smattering of boos when he touched the ball early in the game. Although the boos dissipated as the game went on, as boos tend to do, they were still a bit surprising. When Crowder was traded to Boston almost four years ago, he was the one who strongly made it clear to the Celtics that he had come here to win, not to chase NBA Draft lottery odds. And then the team started winning.
He was an essential part of the rebuild, and then he was traded to the Cavaliers on the same day his mother died. He never wanted to leave. Yes, he was outspoken at times, like when he criticized fans for cheering for Hayward when Hayward came here as a member of the Jazz. But booing him now seems like a bit of a swing and miss.
■ For the fans who would like something to feel good about: Brad Wanamaker joined rookie Robert Williams in Maine for the Red Claws’ G League game on Wednesday. He tossed an alley-oop to Williams in the game, and later in the week flashed a wide smile when I asked about Williams’s athleticism.
“Oh, man, it’s unbelievable,” Wanamaker said. “No one else could have caught that alley-oop but him. It’s pretty cool to watch.”
Even though Wanamaker is an NBA rookie, he is a 29-year-old pro basketball veteran, and he has seen plenty of good teams and good players, and he thinks Williams is on track to be a good player on a good team.
“The sky’s the limit for that guy,” Wanamaker said. “Seeing the little stuff he can do and the improvement he’s made since he’s been here is scary. If he keeps going the way he’s going, he’s going to have a really good career. He’s already improved his free throw shooting tremendously and he can hit the midrange shot and he’s a pretty good passer, so he’s definitely a player for this system.”
■ During the second quarter of Saturday night’s game there were some random but quite audible “Yankees suck” chants coming from the upper reaches of TD Garden. It seemed like odd timing, and an odd placement of cheers. But a few minutes later it shifted to a “Mookie Betts” chant. So either the American League MVP was in a luxury box or Boston fans were just thinking back to happier times.