BOSTON – Brad Stevens delivered a damning piece of self-reflection on a night that was otherwise filled with violins strumming away upon the deck of what appeared to be a Celtics ship on the verge of sinking.
For the most part, the coach and players tried to stay positive following last Sunday night’s blowout loss on the parquet against the San Antonio Spurs. They downplayed the latest-and-greatest, don’t-call-it-a team meeting. Kyrie Irving spoke of the “light at the end of this” after the most recent, most discouraging loss of a regular season repeatedly gone off the rails.
But in the middle of a nine-minute press conference, in which Stevens stressed the chance to still write the end of this story in a positive way, he might have come to his moment of clarity when it came to this Celtics team.
“I’ve never been a part of a team that was solely reliant on whether you make shots or not,” he confessed. “Right now, for the past month, that’s our deal. We’re just relying on whether we make shots, instead of being a buckle-down, make-shots, find-a-way-to-win team.”
So, this past week, after largely being a passenger on his own roller coaster ride the past six months, Stevens decided it was finally time to take the controls, and steer this squad the way he had the overachieving units that had marked his coaching career through two Final Four trips at Butler and his first five years in Boston.
He got defensive with his lineup – moving Aron Baynes into the starting five in place of Marcus Morris. He became more proactive with his late-game rotations – opting to go with the defensive-minded, and red-hot, Jaylen Brown for most of the stretch of Friday’s 114-112 victory against the Indiana Pacers, where he would have typically gone back to starter Jayson Tatum for purely shot-making purposes.
With 12.5 seconds left in a tie game, he had the Celtics take the ball out at three-quarters court instead of advancing the ball all the way to the frontcourt, and watched Al Horford and Irving work the two-man game to perfection leading up to Irving’s game-winning drive with less than a second left.
Stevens actually coached his team to victory, rather than rely on its talent to make enough plays to win.
“Coach had a great game plan putting both of those guys (Baynes and Horford) out there,” said Irving Friday night, in a statement that seemed ubiquitous in previous seasons, but has been rare to hear in a year where the superstar has leveled a series of thinly veiled criticisms against the coach. “He managed the game very well. It worked for us tonight.”
One of the last, defining questions about Stevens was how he would respond to coaching a team that had the skill and expectations to win, after all these years of defying the odds with beloved underdogs.
The answer, to this point, had not been great.
Stevens has been overly deferential to his veterans, opting to keep the locker room from fracturing rather than make bold moves that could rankle the troops. He authored the major shift in the starting five early in the year when he moved Marcus Smart and Morris into the unit in place of Brown and Gordon Hayward, but was painfully slow to make further adjustments – often citing analytics to defend the status quo for a squad in desperate need of being slapped out of its regular season slumber.
The Celtics turned into a group of individual players making individual plays. For all the criticisms of this year’s Celtics squad, perhaps the most sobering conclusion was this: It just has not felt like a Brad Stevens-coached team.
Perhaps, that is the very conclusion Stevens came to himself in the middle that nine-minute press conference a week ago.
So he decided to do something about it. He put Baynes and Horford – players he said at Wednesday’s practice have a “defensive DNA” – in the starting five. He rewarded Brown for his exemplary two-way play for the bulk of the past four months with crunch-time minutes Friday night. He shuttled players in and out on offense and defense in the final possessions.
The Celtics ran actual plays all night instead of relying on playmakers to simply make shots.
Stevens took the reins of the game instead of largely letting it play out in front of him, and hoping for the best.
The result was not only a victory, but a postgame nod from a superstar who – like most superstars in pro sports – wants things all his way, yet yearns to respect a coach who exercises a measure of command.
Stevens did that this week, and on this night. It was refreshing to see, and about time.
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