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The Celtics lack toughness and 9 other takeaways from Boston/Utah

Brad Stevens said his team needs a tougher mindset following another disappointing loss

NBA: Utah Jazz at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

1. Brad Stevens kind of said it all postgame: “The game honors toughness. And boy, is that true. You see that. You see that over and over. We have to build a tougher mindset than we have. We just don’t have that mindset yet that we need.”

2. Being tough comes in a lot of fashions. The ability come back when the chips are down is one of them. Boston has done this over and over again under Stevens. But being tough also means not getting down, over and over again, in the first place. And it means taking care of your homecourt.

Being tough also means being willing to sacrifice. Not just once and a while, but all the time. Right now, there aren’t a lot of Celtics who have sacrificed this year. Sure, guys have changed roles, but everyone is making sure they get their shots and touches. Someone eventually has to say “Forget it. I’ll just defend and rebound. Shots will take care of themselves.” That hasn’t come yet.

3. Boston’s offense isn’t as bad as it has looked, both in this game and this season. They shot just 8-of-37 on open or wide-open shots against the Jazz. At some point you have to say it’s not a slump and it’s just how it is. But these guys made all these shots last year, minus Marcus Smart of course. It’s too early to call it anything but a slump, given the talent on the roster. Another few weeks of this type of shooting? Sound the alarm.

4. Utah plays one of the most traditional lineups in the NBA. They go with two bigs to open the game in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. They have an old-school, ball-dominant point guard in Ricky Rubio. And Joe Ingles and Donovan Mitchell are throwbacks in the way they play. The Celtics, who have played as non-traditional alignment as there is in the NBA, have had success against the Jazz because they get mismatches.

In the past, Boston has been able to get Utah to play just one big, usually Gobert, and then they attack him by using Al Horford on the perimeter. In the two games this year, that strategy never quite came together. Utah pulled Favors earlier in each of this year’s games and downsized to Jae Crowder, when allowed them to matchup better. And Gobert stayed home in the paint as opposed to trying to match up with Horford outside. The Celtics just weren’t able to take advantage of that matchup as they have in the past.

5. This game was as forgettable a performance as Jaylen Brown has had in his short career. He was just 1-of-9 overall and 1-of-6 from behind the arc. He also really struggled as the primary defender on Mitchell. Brown’s counting stats (points, rebounds and assists) are all down this season. That was expected with the extra mouths to feed. His efficiency on offense and defense has fallen off a cliff. That was not expected, and it needs to change for the Celtics to be the team they want to be.

6. Boston continues to struggle to contain opposing ballhandlers. That has been the single biggest change from the great defense of the last few seasons, as opposed to this one. In game one against the Jazz, Ingles repeatedly broke the Celtics down off the bounce. In this game it was Mitchell and Rubio getting wherever they wanted on the floor.

7. Overall, the Celtics defensive numbers as a team look pretty good. They are still first in Defensive Rating. But those numbers are a little misleading. The situational defense has been pretty bad. Other teams are getting great looks whenever they really need one. That’s not how the Celtics have defended the last few years. And Boston hasn’t played a lot of the better offenses just yet. That has led to some stats that look better than they really have been, because of the competition.

8. Terry Rozier has joined Brown in struggling on both ends. He looks to be one of the guys who is the most thrown off by the return of Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. That was to be somewhat expected. But Rozier is still getting just as many touches and is only playing two less minutes than he did last season, when he started 16 regular season games and the entirety of the playoff run. Given that he’s playing against second-unit players, Rozier needs to step it up. And he can’t do it by launching contested jumpers after dribbling for 15 seconds of the shot clock.

9. Stevens has got to consider some lineup re-jiggering. He’s stuck with the same starting five all year, when all players are available. But his team is certainly in a rut. He can call it toughness, which is fair, but it’s also just complacency. There is no reason that Irving, Hayward, Brown, Horford and Jayson Tatum have to be the starting five. That can, and should, change when things aren’t working.

Utah let Boston do their thing offensively and was happy to do it. The Jazz are a smart, well-coached defense. They let Boston dribble around forever and then take contested looks at the end of the clock. Then when the Celtics over-corrected and took quick shots, Utah made sure to contest those too. Boston has a lot of guys who need and want the ball. Splitting some of them has to be considered at this point.

It’s up to Stevens to fix this. The players can’t fix it themselves. This is where a coach earns his money.

10. As for the starting lineup and rotation, except some changes. If Stevens wants more toughness, guys like Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye are going to play more and at different times. Stevens’ postgame quotes seemed to be foreshadowing that. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see all five of those players prominently feature in the rotation over the next couple of weeks while the Celtics try to find their identity.

Bonus: After every loss a rather large portion of the Boston fanbase starts loudly clamoring for Danny Ainge to trade for Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans. Davis is an exceptional talent and right at the top of this season’s early MVP rankings. But the Celtics can’t trade for Davis this year, unless they also trade Kyrie Irving. Because both Davis and Irving signed Designated Player Extensions (informally called the Rose Rule), this makes trading for Davis a no-go. NBA teams are not allowed to have two Designated Players on the roster at the same time that they acquired via trade. And, it doesn’t matter that neither Irving nor Davis met the requirements for the Rose Rule extension to kick in. It only matters that those were the terms they signed under.

When Irving opts out of his contract this summer, that restriction is lifted. Then you just have to deal with the little problem that neither Davis nor the Pelicans have shown any inclination towards a trade. You can ask nicely, and you can ask often (and you do!), but there is no way Davis wears Celtics green this season. And he’s probably not wearing it next year either.

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