It's unlikely that the Boston Celtics had grown too big of a head in recent weeks. Sure, the Celtics had won seven of their past 11 games before Tuesday's tilt with the Cleveland Cavaliers and newcomer Isaiah Thomas earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors on Monday helping the team generate a small buzz in a city that's largely ignored them this season.
But after his team endured a 110-79 shellacking in Cleveland on Tuesday night -- a defeat in which Boston trailed by as much as 44 points in the fourth quarter -- Celtics coach Brad Stevens directed a rare bit of tough love toward his squad after an uninspired effort.
"Everybody’s been patting them on the back for the last week," Stevens told reporters in Cleveland. "That's what happens sometimes. We have to get back to being a good team."
After building a 26-point lead against the Golden State Warriors in the first half of Sunday's game, the Celtics were outscored 176-101 over the 69-minute span that followed. That included the Warriors rallying for a 106-101 win on Sunday and the Cavaliers building a 44-point lead (100-56) with 10 minutes to play Tuesday.
Offered the opportunity to dip into the coaches' cliche handbook and suggest that Boston needed to simply move past Tuesday's disaster, particularly with the second night of a back-to-back looming when the Utah Jazz visit TD Garden on Wednesday, Stevens refused.
"It’s important for it to hurt; it better hurt," Stevens said. "We’ll find out a lot more about ourselves in 24 hours."
Stevens often has noted that the true measure of a team is how it responds to adversity. The Celtics, at least the iteration that has been together for the last 10 days, have now wilted in the second half against the league's best team (Golden State) and laid an egg against what many believe is the team most likely to come out of the East (Cleveland).
With a chance to fight for a final playoff spot in the East over the next 24 games, Boston has to get back on track quickly. Wednesday's game comes against a team with a similar record -- the Jazz are 24-35; the Celtics are 23-35 -- and yet the difference is that, while Boston is two games back of a postseason berth in the East, Utah sits 8.5 games back of the playoff pack in the West.
Stevens implored his charges to get back to team basketball and not the individual brand he said they relied on Tuesday.
"I told them it wasn't good enough," Stevens said. "It's not OK to walk out of here thinking that that's the best team and you have nights like this. We played individual basketball on both ends of the floor the whole night. And individual basketball against these guys doesn't work because their individuals are the best in the game. So you better figure it out that we have to play collectively on both ends."
In the big picture, the Celtics were big underdogs in Cleveland. A 31-point loss counts just as much as a 5-point loss in the standings. The Celtics can either let the loss linger with them and effect their play moving forward, or they can use it as motivation to come out with more fire against Utah.
Celtics second-year big man Kelly Olynyk missed his 18th straight game due to a sprained right ankle and his return timeline remains uncertain.
"He played 3-on-3 this morning. I thought he looked pretty good," Stevens told reporters before Tuesday's game. "I can't imagine it's long. It's going to be his call. But he looked good today. I thought he looked a little bit winded, hadn't played much competitively in the last couple of weeks obviously. But we're not going to have time to do a 5-on-5 practice to feel good about it. We're just going to have to probably do it in the games."
Later, Stevens added: "What I can't answer for you is how he felt pain-wise while he was doing it, which is another factor. And that's where he has to be the ultimate determining [factor], the guy who makes that call."