BOSTON — Brad Stevens may be “uncomfortable” with all of the coaching praise being heaped on him from reporters, columnists and TV experts.
But the Celtics coach, who Monday admitted his discomfort with getting credit for outmaneuvering Cavs counterpart Tyronn Lue and LeBron James in Game 1, better get used to it since the opinions of those who matter – his opponents – agree that he is having a remarkable run of success with the Celtics this postseason.
“I thought they had great game plan Game 1,” James said after being held to 5-of-16 shooting and a playoff-low 15 points in Boston’s 108-83 demolition of the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs on Sunday.
Stevens chose to start Marcus Morris over Aron Baynes, in part to help put a more athletic body on the court to get in front of King James, who in his previous 11 playoff games this season scored 40 or more points four times, and 30 or more on two other occasions. His lowest point total was 22 in a Game 6 blowout loss at Indiana.
“He was the start of it,” James said of Morris. “He was my matchup, and I think they did a great job of communicating throughout the whole game, knowing where I was and knowing where our teammates was.
“Brad and the coaching staff did a great job in Game 1. You commend that. We have an opportunity to look at a lot of film tomorrow, and see ways they were making us uncomfortable, making myself off balance and not have a rhythm all game. So we’ll be much better in Game 2.”
But as anyone who has been around the Celtics for the last five seasons can tell you, the brilliance and skill in Stevens’ approach goes far, far beyond making a substitution here or there. It is how Stevens sees the game much differently than anyone else watching, whether it be players, broadcasters, fans, writers or – most importantly – opposing coaches.
The intricacies of Stevens’ approach were in full display in just the first 15 minutes Sunday. Yes, Morris started on James but then the Celtics went into hyper switching mode, throwing nearly every player in green and white in front of James over the course of the first half. There was Al Horford, Semi Ojeleye, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart and even Terry Rozier. The Celtics made sure there were bodies waiting in the paint on the ball side every time the ball was in his hands, a bubble layer of protection of sorts to make sure he couldn’t drive to the basket at will to get his own offense going.
There was not going to be anything predictable about the defense Stevens and his staff drew up. Why? Because you can’t telegraph what you’re doing against the best player in the world.
Stevens, of course, has yet to win an NBA championship, let alone make it to the NBA Finals. All of this praise can rub some people the wrong way, including former Celtic champions and legends.
“I think he gets a little too much praise but I like what he’s doing,” Robert Parish told SiriusXMNBA. “They’re giving him all the love like he won three or four championships. Come on now. Win something first, with all the love he’s getting. Now granted, don’t get me wrong, he’s a solid coach, I’ll give him that. (But) the love he’s getting from the media, you’d think the Celtics won two or three championships (with him as the coach). You would think.”
This might shed more light than anything on why Stevens might feel uncomfortable with the praise being thrown at him this season.
“I think they’re just organized,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told me before Game 5 in Boston. “They’re just organized, offensively, defensively. They’re purposeful in what they do and they’re hard to guard. Playing against them and coaching against them, I think they’re purposeful and I think they’re organized.”
Stevens said Sunday he sensed more poise from his team this year as opposed to last year in their meltdowns in Games 2 and 5. Poise is something that Stevens has always been about. He was about it at the end of the third quarter when the Cavaliers cut the lead down to 14, at 78-64. From poise comes confidence. That’s what Marcus Morris showed when he bragged Saturday that he’s “probably the best guy in the league outside Kawhi (Leonard)” to guard James. This didn’t bother Stevens one bit.
“I don’t even worry about it. I don’t pay attention to any of that stuff,” Stevens said. “I just pay attention to what happens on the court. We’ve got a lot of room to improve from (Game 1). I thought we missed some opportunities to close out the shooters. I thought some of our doubles were bad, and I thought offensively we got stagnant in their third quarter run.
“I think we’re very alert to the fact that we’ll get a heavyweight punch on Tuesday night. It’s another great challenge, another great opportunity to experience something for this team.”
That’s the brilliance of Stevens. He turns a question about a player’s personality into a learning point about game execution. This is right out of Bill Belichick’s handbook.
Do the unconventional. Zig when they expect you to zag. Keep your player in with two fouls in the first half because you’ve taught them how to play with two fouls.
When Marcus Morris picked up those two early fouls in the game, Stevens again left him in against LeBron and he still found a way to be effective throughout the half as the Celtics built their lead to 28.
“99 percent of the time I lean on, error of the side of not taking them out,” Stevens said. “I remember as a player, which I wasn’t very good, but the rhythm it breaks if you take a guy out in the first three minutes of a game. If he fouls out in the first quarter, then somebody else has to play. That’s the way it goes.”
Lue acknowledged Monday that he is considering putting Tristan Thompson on the court to – presumably – help in defense of Al Horford and get another big body on the court to hit the glass.
This already feels like Stevens has dictated the matchup. The Celtics didn’t have Aron Baynes to match up with Celtics killer Thompson. The Celtics didn’t have Morris to bang and hang with LeBron. And the Cavs had Kyrie Irving to dictate pace.
We all needed Game 1 to have all this play out in front of us. Brad Stevens could see this as he prepared. Stevens isn’t the only very, very good coach in the NBA, and he will happily tell you there are 29 others better.
But right now, there’s not a better coach still working in the NBA playoffs and that’s a very good thing for the Celtics and a potential nightmare for the Cavaliers.