BOSTON -- Brad Stevens was talking about coaching, or more accurately, he was answering a question about whether he ever expected to take this Celtics team into the playoffs. The one with a franchise-record 23 different players on its roster, and the one that traded Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green during the season. The one that, honestly, no one really thought would make it to the postseason. Right, coach?
"I've never gone into a game where I don't feel like we have a chance to win if we prepare the right way," Stevens said. "If you look at it that way, you think you've got a shot. We talked about the steps that it takes to get there. It require a lot of discipline, it requires a lot of commitment and a lot of sacrifice by our players, and they've done that."
That's more or less his sideline philosophy: prepare and go play. He's not one for blood-pumping speeches or berating players who make mistakes. Don't be fooled by that placid demeanor because it comes with an edge. Stevens believes he can win any game he coaches, which is why he knocked down a follow-up about what "surprised" him this season.
"I want to be careful saying I'm surprised," he said. "As a coach you have an expectation that you're going play well, and if you do all those things that everyone's capable of doing in their roles, you will play well."
This is how Stevens talks: measured, positive and on message. It would be cliché if he didn't believe it so strongly. In some ways, the man is unreadable. He's not going to call out players in public or go off on officials. In other ways, he is as exactly as he appears. There is no artifice. While not as charismatic as some of his contemporaries, that has its own appeal to players who have been conditioned to deal with temperamental coaches throughout their careers.
"I don't think he cares," Isaiah Thomas said by way of a compliment when asked how Stevens managed to juggle as many as 11 players in and out of rotations. "He's so even-keeled you can't get anything out of him. No matter if he had his kids, five kids out there, he's going to coach the same way."
In their final regular season home game, the Celtics and Raptors drew to an 87-all tie with 36 seconds left. Rather incredibly, that left time for three more possessions for each side. Evan Turner scored first. Tyler Zeller scored next. Jae Crowder had the final honors on an out-of-bounds play with 2.8 seconds remaining that left him with a contested fallaway 22-foot jump shot. Naturally, he drilled it.
Those 36 seconds tell you just about everything you need to know about the Celtics this season. None of those players were with them last year and all of them were very much available when Danny Ainge came calling. Taken individually, they're solid, if uninspiring role players. Taken collectively, they're major contributors on an unlikely playoff team.
Ainge's wheeling and dealing is well-established by this point, as is Stevens' ability to get the most out of his players. It's a measure of how well the coach is regarded as an ATO wizard, that, immediately after Crowder made his improbable shot, as many people were talking about the coach as the player.
That presents an interesting dynamic as the postseason approaches. The Celtics roster has exactly one all-star appearance on its resume. That was by Gerald Wallace. Five years ago. The closest thing they have to a contemporary star is Thomas, who is a leading Sixth Man contender.
It's not at all clear how many players from this particular group will be around if and when Ainge is able to build his next contender. Ainge has told me, and others, that it's not his goal to sneak into the playoffs, and it's no secret that he wants to upgrade the roster to compete for a championship.
But the Celtics do have a rising star on the sidelines, who is very much a part of the future, if not the entire foundation. If no one's giving them a chance in hell of beating the Cavaliers in the playoffs, everyone wants to see what Stevens might come up with in his playoff debut.
While understandable, that does Stevens and his team a disservice for what they've accomplished over the final two and a half months. The system is great, the end-of-game plays are creative and the defense has been just as good at covering up weaknesses as the offense. But what's really happened here is a group of players have quickly formed a collective greater than the sum of their parts. That's been Stevens' true coaching genius this season, and his players' greatest achievement. It's impossible to separate the two.
"The total buy-in is unbelievable," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "They've got a young team. It's almost like a college team playing hard, running through a wall and they're relentless. Brad has them playing at a high level on both ends of the floor. If you don't match their intensity you're in trouble. They remind me a lot of us last year. No agendas, nothing but let's go out and play hard and let's win. That's how they're playing now and that's how I think the game should be played."
Throughout the season, the Celtics have won admirers for their style of play, but that's had the effect of underrating their playoff run. They went 24-12 since early February and have the fourth-best net differential in the conference during that span. This is not a juggernaut by any means, but it's gone on long enough to suggest it's not a fluke either.
A lot of that has to do with Thomas, who joined the active roster in time for a late February game against the Lakers. Stevens is quick to point out that even before IT's arrival, they had put together a solid West Coast trip and then won 4-of-5 heading into the NBA All-Star break. The subtle message: everyone's played a part. That's not aimed at Thomas, who understands the dynamic as well as anyone, as much as a sly refutation of an easy media narrative. It's also true.
"We don't have the most talent," Thomas said. "We don't have no superstars. That's just our motto. If we don't play hard, we're not even close to half the team we are. We're not a good team if we're not playing hard and playing with each other. We know that and we know that's our recipe for success."
What the Celtics do have are skilled players who can shoot and put the ball on the floor. In addition to their spacing and ball movement, that puts pressure on opposing defenses and makes their players harder to guard than they would be as stationary fourth or fifth options on other teams.
"They present a problem because one through five, those guys can take you off the dribble," Casey said. "All five guys can play off the catch. That presents an unusual problem for you defensively. You don't want to play them because they're going to keep coming at you, keep coming at you, keep coming at you. And again, the way they play with their bigs is unorthodox. You've got to have multiple bigs to be able to guard them for 48 minutes."
None of this would work if anyone deviated too much from their assigned role, but this is not a team of role players staying comfortably out of the way. There's freedom in Stevens' system, and that presents a kind of free-wheeling flow within their structure. Anyone can shoot and everyone does. In that Raptors' game, seven different players took at least nine shots and scored as many points. That's not unusual. There's an inherent unselfishness in the arrangement, which is their greatest strength.
"Guys just like playing with each other, man," Thomas said. "I can't really pinpoint what the exact thing is about it. There's been a lot of people on the Celtics this year, a lot of different teammates for those guys, and this group just likes playing for each other. You see it each and every night. Guys want other guys to succeed. No one cares about the points, their stats. It's all about winning."
The Celtics enter the postseason with long odds and no regrets. They may get wiped out in Cleveland, or they may throw a scare into LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Neither scenario changes what this team accomplished this season, nor does it have much impact on its future. This is not a team for the long haul. It's a team for today, one that's taken on the characteristics of its coach and turned them into a likeable, if unlikely, identity. That's worth appreciating, no matter how long the postseason lasts or what the future holds.
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