Much of the silver lining this season has been largely focused on individual accomplishments. Jayson Tatum is on the path to superstardom. Jaylen Brown isn’t far behind after making his first All-Star Game. Payton Pritchard looks like a steal from the draft. Robert Williams has turned upside and potential into real production.
But despite all those singular accolades, the Celtics are still only a game above .500 at 20-19 and as a team, haven’t played well enough to compete with the league’s best. After a 117-109 loss to the Jazz on Tuesday night, Boston fell to 0-8 against Utah, Brooklyn, Phoenix, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
At 29-10, the Jazz have the best record in the league, but that’s not necessarily what impresses Brad Stevens. For the Celtics head coach, it’s their precision and execution on the floor and a stark realization that Boston just isn’t there yet.
“(Utah) makes people pay more than anybody in the league as a team,” Stevens said of the Jazz’s top-5 offense. “There are certain individuals around the league that make you pay every time you make a mistake. (Utah) makes you pay every time you make a mistake as a team...There’s a reason why the rest of us don’t have their record. That’s the reality of it. We don’t make people pay as much as they make everyone else pay.”
So much of Utah’s success has been born out of their roster consistency. Since drafting Donovan Mitchell in 2017 (the same year as Jayson Tatum), the Jazz’s two-time All-Star has played with Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Georges Niang, and Royce O’Neale for four seasons, Derrick Favors for three, and Mike Conley, Bojan Bogdanović, and Jordan Clarkson for two. After back-to-back first round exits, their patience has finally paid off.
For the Celtics, while their core three players--Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart--have all gone deep into the playoffs together, there’s less shared experience between them and the rest of their current teammates. Ten of Boston’s fifteen rostered players are on rookie contracts and in this season alone, those three plus Kemba Walker have only played four games together. And with more than half the season in the books, they’re still showing some growing pains.
“We don’t read it as quickly right now. That’s what you hope to get to,” Stevens said. “You hope to get to the point where you catch it, you’re open, you shoot it. You come off a screen, you’re open, you shoot it. You come off a screen and they’re up (on defense), you get rid of it quick and you make the right read, whether it’s ahead, whether it’s to the roll, whether it’s to the guy behind, whether it’s across the court on a skip. Those are things that the best pick-and-roll players, the best catch-and-shoot players can do as they continue to progress.”
The Celtics aren’t there yet, but they’ve shown improvement of late. After a disastrous road trip, Boston won four straight at home heading into the All-Star break and looked to be on the right path.
“I feel like we’ve been playing a lot better recently. On some nights, shots aren’t falling like we would like them to. But we’re for sure playing better,” Jayson Tatum said after he and Brown combined for 57 points, but Boston’s bench was outscored 45-to-21. “I can say that. I feel it. I think it’s obvious when we play. We’ve lost to some really good teams recently that we feel like there were a few mistakes change, the outcome may have been different.”
Forget that Utah made 19 of their 43 three-point attempts. Disregard that they shot twenty more free throws than Boston. For Brown, his focus was less on made or missed shots, but the little things that lead up to them.
“It’s not the movement. It’s our promise to timing,” Brown said. “We gotta get it out of our hands quicker. Just half a second can make the biggest difference. Making the right play right on time is important for us. I know I’ve gotten better at that as the season has gone on and I’ll continue to get better at it, but we gotta continue to get better as a team.”