BOSTON – Teams aren’t born with toughness. It’s a trait that’s developed over time and it’s one that does not necessarily translate from season to season. It’s also a quality that can fluctuate from game to game, which is exactly the issue that the Boston Celtics appear to be dealing with right now.
Friday night, the C’s pulled out arguably their toughest win of the season, rallying back from a double-digit deficit against the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors for an inspiring, 123-116 overtime win.
Saturday night, on the other hand, featured a completely different tale.
The Celtics’ momentum didn’t carry over into their contest against the Utah Jazz, as the team struggled to produce energy from the get-go. The Jazz, playing on their A-game, took advantage of Boston’s lack of focus, and danced their way to a 98-86 win at TD Garden.
“It’s something that we’ve been dealing with all year,” veteran leader Al Horford said of his team’s inconsistency. “I felt like we addressed it a couple times, but after the Portland game (a 100-94 loss on Sunday night) that was something that we wanted to be better, and I felt like we came out the right way yesterday. But for whatever reason, today we couldn’t sustain the focus and the energy we needed.”
The Celtics got off to a sluggish start Friday night, shooting just 8-of-21 during the first quarter, including 1-of-9 from beyond the arc. The Jazz, meanwhile, clicked from the start, opening up with a 29-20 lead after one quarter on 56.3 percent shooting.
Unable to snap itself out of its early funk, Boston fell behind by as many as 22 points, only to close the gap slightly during garbage time late in the fourth quarter.
The lopsided loss and lack of overall energy could have easily been attributed to the fact that the C’s were playing their second game over a 24-hour span, but given their lofty goals and high expectations, they weren’t willing to use that as an excuse.
“It’s definitely a challenge, but the best teams in the league do it,” Gordon Hayward said in regard to playing well on the second night of a back-to-back. “If that’s where we want to be, we have to be able to do that.”
Once the Celtics are able to push through tough games like these, their collective morale should rise. That’s something that coach Brad Stevens is certain about.
“At the end of the day, you build confidence through doing hard things over and over and over,” said the coach. “Because that’s your focus. That’s your intent. Your job is your focus. You know what you’re supposed to do. You perform every assignment, you do it physically, you do it tough, and then all of a sudden, the ball goes in. It’s just kind of funny how it works.
“I had an old friend that was one of the best NAI coaches ever and coached for 34 years in the state of Indiana, and his phrase that his team used was, ‘The game honors toughness.’ And boy, is that true.”
The Celtics understand how true that statement is, because they are living it right now. They have seen energetic efforts, like Friday night’s, be rewarded. And on nights that they lose focus, such as Saturday night, they have seen their efforts be punished.
Last year’s Celtics were able to push through tough scenarios from the get-go, but it’s important to understand that each team is its own entity. Some teams take longer than others to build a collective persistence, and sometimes it can be difficult to maintain consistently over the course of an 82-game regular season grind.
But if there’s one message that came out of the Celtics locker room Saturday night, it’s that they, as a team, need to start building a greater level of toughness, and right away.
“It’s something that just needs to be there,” said Horford. “It’s the Celtic way.”