Many fans hoped/expected for a small/big trade at the deadline, but the Celtics returned to the court in Utah with virtually the same roster. Kelly Olynyk is out for the next three weeks, and David Lee was bought out, but Boston returned from the All-Star break as the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference with one of the stingiest defenses in the league and an offense improving around Isaiah Thomas and a gelling bench.
On Friday night, you had to wonder if the team was still on hiatus.
It was a game of contrasting styles and, ultimately, results. As the ESPN broadcast noted, entering the game, Boston ranked 3rd in pace and 9th in offensive efficiency while Utah ranked last in pace and 14th in offensive efficiency. The Celtics had 13 more field goal attempts off of 15 forced turnovers and 8 offensive rebounds, but that didn't matter in the end. A very liberal whistle mucked up the game and made it ugly with 57 fouls and 80 total free throws for both sides.
Utah shot the lights out, hitting 54.4% from the field whereas Boston couldn't get anything going. The three-point shot that had been their friend during their 13-4 stretch was missing, and so was their defense, specifically their rotations. The Jazz are second-to-last in the NBA in assists at 18.4 per game, but against the Celtics, they dished 22. Many of those assists came on extra passes with the defense rotating and Boston failing to make that last switch near the basket. That lead to a whopping 44 points in the paint. Isaiah Thomas finished with 25 points, but the team just could not stop Derrick Favors, who finished with an efficient 23, or stop fouling Gordon Hayward, who went to the line 15 times for 22 points.
The Celtics close out this three-game west coast trip with back-to-back games in Denver and Minnesota starting on Sunday. Then, 7 out of their next 8 will be at home over a leisurely 21 days. This should be a stretch where they can separate themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference scrum and solidify their playoff position (if not improve it). Of current teams in the playoffs today in the East, they have the second easiest schedule, but they can't come out and play like they did tonight. There was a lot of bad body language out there and loafing when the refs and the bounce didn't go their way. This has been a team that has responded well after adversity. Although this game was just one bad effort, the Celtics can't let it snowball against the Nuggets and Timberwolves, both of whom were thumped in the Garden earlier in the season. I love these comments from Brad Stevens after the game:
Brad Stevens says he told the Celtics in the postgame locker room, "You're a pro. There shouldn't be any rust."— Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 20, 2016
Brad Stevens says, "We didn't play with any presence." He adds that the guys who were in for the final three minutes played the right way.— Boston Celtics (@celtics) February 20, 2016
Finally, for what it's worth, we have to stop talking about this team as rebuilding and just happy to be here. The Celtics should be hosting a playoff series in March, winning it, and competing for a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Jazz were hot, but the Celtics should never lose a game because of effort, and that's what happened tonight.