BOSTON — Kyrie Irving saw the potential for problems immediately.
In the opening minutes of a disappointing loss to the Utah Jazz on Saturday, Irving swooped in for a layup around Joe Ingles, finishing through the foul. He turned away from the hoop, clapping his hands at Jaylen Brown and yelling, “Let’s go.”
Irving believed the Celtics were lacking energy, and the team proved him right — Utah pulled away late, and the Celtics folded in a 98-86 loss, one day removed from their most encouraging win of the season.
“I just think the start of the game for us was a tell-tale sign of just how the night was going to go,” Irving said.
Irving went on to describe one of the first plays of the game — a somewhat pointed criticism of Jayson Tatum, who pulled up for a long two against Derrick Favors, rather than attacking the basket against a mismatch.
“I think as one of the leaders on the team, we kind of expect the effort level to be a little higher, even after a back-to-back,” Irving said. “Had a pretty good shoot around. I think initially starting the game, we just weren’t in the right spots that we just went over in the game plan, and we’re hoping to execute it to limit some of their opportunities on the offensive end.”
The mentality that aggravated Irving irked Stevens as well.
“We have to build a tougher team mindset than we have,” Stevens said. “I mean, we just don’t have that mindset yet that we need.”
Stevens tried a little bit of everything in pursuit of that toughness, but nothing seemed to click after the opening minutes, and Utah pulled ahead by more and more. The lead stretched as high as 22 before Stevens pulled most of his starters with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, trying a strange lineup with Semi Ojeleye, Brad Wanamaker, Guerschon Yabusele and Daniel Theis, alongside Irving.
The message was clear (even if Stevens didn’t expressly say he was trying to send one): The Celtics needed energy and toughness, and on Saturday, they weren’t getting it from their star-studded starting five.
“We weren’t going anywhere with what we were doing, so it was better just to mix it up,” Stevens said. “See if those guys could bring us some live legs, and let’s go. We had a moment there where we cut it to 13 or whatever, and I think they won that eight-minute stretch by at least five or seven. But we just needed other guys out there. Or at least that’s what I felt. Maybe I’m wrong.”
Irving understood Stevens’ frustration.
“I think it can be frustrating as a coach as well as a player to: You expect to play at a certain level, we go over things, we have a kind of free-flowing locker room, Coach just wants us to go play hard for him, and he deserves that,” Irving said. “So I don’t blame him for saying we’re lacking toughness at that point of just willing yourself to be in the right spots, and stay disciplined and be smart enough to follow the game plan.”
Questions about toughness never existed for previous iterations of this Celtics team. The 2016-17 squad was defined by it — a gritty crew of cast-offs who banded together and earned the No. 1 seed. When Danny Ainge shook up the roster, he traded away some of the tougher players, but last year’s resilient squad famously survived season-ending injuries to Irving and Gordon Hayward and very nearly gutted their way to the Finals.
But this year’s team is different.
“Every team is its own entity,” Stevens said. “There are challenges that present themselves every single day, and you never know how teams are going to respond. Year-to-year, it’s a different deal.”
“I think guys have gotten better,” Irving added. “Guys want to take advantage of their talent. With that being said, I think last year, the young guys that are in the locker room now, some of the guys that are playing, they were a little bit younger. They weren’t expected to do as much and I think that the amount of pressure that we put on them to perform every single night is something that they have to get used to, like being part of a great team like this. If you’re not playing to the standard then, as a team, we just don’t all click. I think once we get that, and we find that consistency, we’ll be good.”
One of the tougher players who was traded away from the 2016-17 roster played for the opposing team on Saturday: Jae Crowder, who finished with five points and one minor altercation in 27 minutes for Utah. He said he believes the current Celtics will find their toughness, mostly thanks to their coach.
“Those guys are really a heck of an offensive unit,” Crowder said. “They can score it a lot of different ways. They score a lot of variety. I think they can build that as the season goes on. Whatever they’re lacking, they can build as the season goes on. They just have to believe it, and believe in Brad. He’s able to bring that out of guys.”
Al Horford has seen Stevens find toughness in his players, but he hasn’t seen this roster respond like some of the others.
“I feel like last year’s team would have developed that identity,” Horford said. “This year, for whatever reason, it’s not happening consistently. It’s something that always needs to be there. It’s the Celtic way, the way that you want to play and the things that you want to do and set the tone.”
Stevens told a story about an old coaching friend who used to say, “The game rewards toughness.”
“And boy, is that true,” Stevens said. “You see that. You see that over and over. So I would say if we’re struggling with the ball going in the hole that we should lock in to what we need to do better, and that will take care of itself.”