It’s hours before Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals in Cleveland, and Brad Stevens is getting up shots. Standing a few feet off the court beyond the end line he drains a 23-footer that travels over the backboard in a perfect arc.
“Got that from watching Kyrie,” he says with a grin, referencing his injured superstar. Kyrie Irving was acquired from these very same Cavaliers in large measure to handle situations like this series.
No matter. This is Relaxed Brad, which is not all that different from every other time of the day Brad. During games, Stevens rarely appears out of sorts or off-kilter. His sideline stoicism carries an air of unbothered confidence, which wasn’t always the case.
In an offhand moment earlier in this series, Stevens described himself as a mentally weak player back in his days at DePauw University. When stuff got hard on the floor — whether it was missing shots or not playing as an upperclassmen when better players came along — Stevens got lost in his own head.
It was an interesting admission from the coach of a team that prides itself on mental toughness above all things.
“The term I’ve heard is shot amnesia,” Stevens tells me after finishing up that impromptu routine with a miss. “The last one doesn’t go in, you’ve got to be able to move on to the next one. I was never a guy that could do that. I got better as my career went on, but if anyone said anything to me about it, or I thought about it more, especially in the middle of a game, I wasn’t tough enough mentally to handle that. The greatest thing for helping me learn to coach was failing as a player.”
Of course, not being able to handle Division III adversity is a whole lot different than overcoming LeBron James. Stevens is quick to point out his players are much tougher mentally than he was back in the day.
His entire coaching philosophy is built on channeling that mental strength. Mistakes are not failures to be haunted by; they are something to quickly forget and learn from later. The whole point is to create a place where players are free to play with, “freedom and confidence,” as Stevens puts it.
“Free and easy, within our means,” says second-year forward Jaylen Brown, who understands the teachings of Stevens as well as anyone. “Brad does a good job of knowing what everybody can do and what they’re capable of. He puts the offense in that allows it to thrive.”
This approach fits the upstart Celtics perfectly, who are inexplicably one win from the NBA Finals, despite losing two stars in Irving and Gordon Hayward along with a host of role players. This shouldn’t be happening, not this year anyway, but it is — largely because Stevens has empowered the players he does have to be confident and fearless. They, in turn, trust their coach.
“Some of the plays he draws up, we kind of look at them like, ‘I don’t really know if this is going to work or not,’” Marcus Smart says. “And when you do it, you’re like, ‘You know what, sorry I ever doubted you.’ When you have a coach like that, it’s fun to play for, and you want to go out there and give it everything you have.”
The only reason Stevens even brought up his own shortcomings as a player was in order to praise Smart, the energetic — and let’s say streaky — Celtics guard. The coach tells his players to let it fly and that green light extends from Al Horford — who rarely makes a wrong decision — all the way down to Smart, who is statistically one of the worst shooters in the league.
To Stevens’ way of thinking, Smart has earned that right because he does so many other things that help you win, from battling big bodies in the post to diving on the floor for loose balls. He’s not going to mess with that kind of hell-bent confidence over something as pedestrian as shot selection.
And it’s not like Smart takes bad shots. Some might be described as ambitious, but most are in the rhythm of the game. In order to win, Stevens needs Smart to be Smart and that involves a wide range of latitude.
“We have to be that way and I want to be that way,” Stevens says. “It’s a fine line. You can’t do a bunch of stuff as a player that aren’t your strengths. At the same time you also need to know that you’re believed in when the moment arrives.”
From time to time, a question will pop into Brad’s orbit about Irving and Hayward, who will both miss the entirety of this postseason. The premise changes from how did you overcome those injuries to: Isn’t it kind of fun to play shorthanded? You know, like at Butler?
The answer, of course, is no. Any coach at any level would want all of his players available, especially his best ones.
It’s a trickier question than it appears because it implies that it’s only through the sideline genius of St. Stevens that the Celtics are having success. The further implication is Stevens doesn’t have a lot to work with.
Another way to view the situation, which Stevens prefers, is that the team he has right now is pretty good.
Start with Horford, a grown man’s all-star in a conference loaded with superstars-in-training. Horford outplayed Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round and then took the measure of both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in the second.
Brown and Jayson Tatum are prototypes for the modern NBA wing, in a league that switches everything on defense and works to create mismatches on offense. Terry Rozier has been a revelation, a backup turned starting point guard with a lethal combination of speed, toughness, and a pull-up jumper.
Veterans like Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes have been exemplary role players and leaders, doling out sharp elbows and hard screens. Smart is an entity unto himself, a player from another era who thrives in this one due to a combination of manic competitiveness and an underrated ability to run Brad’s offense with a sure hand.
That offense has taken an interesting turn this postseason. Where before Stevens’ players got shots from his system, the system is now aggressively hunting for mismatches for the players. Few have benefitted more than Brown, who often has a size and speed advantage over opposing guards.
“Same system,” Brown clarifies. “Better players.”
That’s the crux of this basketball dilemma. To a lot of people who watch this game, Brad Stevens is an answer to a question they can’t quite figure out. How can the depleted Celtics have come so far as to be one win away from the Finals with a chance to end LeBron’s seven-year reign on top of the Eastern Conference?
Must be Brad.
To the extent that Stevens’ acknowledges his adoring public, it’s with a polite “That’s nice.” It clearly makes him uncomfortable because he understands that it’s a game he can’t win.
All coaches get criticized — Stevens included — but few, if any, receive as much lavish praise. Even when he loses, as when Dwane Casey was named Coach of the Year by his peers, the media focus became Stevens not receiving a vote.
The Bradlash operates on parallel tracks whenever he loses a game or gets one-upped by his coaching counterpart — “That’s your coaching genius?”
The real issue isn’t whether the attention bothers Stevens, but whether it affects the team. Giving the coach credit for victories and assigning the players blame when they lose has been the undoing of many a contender. The answer, at this point, is no.
“The media is going to be the media,” Brown told me, a member of the media writing about Brad Stevens. “We can’t control that. I don’t think guys are bothered by it. We do think it’s a collective. We do think we deserve a little more credit, but it doesn’t bother us.”
Not much does bother these Celtics, which is the whole point of everything.
The phrase that pops up around the team about Stevens is that he’s consistently genuine. He’s the same way with his players as he is with his staff and with everyone else that comes along.
That’s not to say that he won’t blow his players up — woe to the team that doesn’t play hard at home, a particular point of pride for Stevens. Yet, there is a notable lack of finger-pointing when things go wrong, and excuses are rarely heard.
“A coach earns respect at this level when things are not going so well and the coach is still behind you as a player,” says Horford, who serves as the team’s veteran conscience. “He’s still acting the same way. He’s still preparing the same way. He’s still looking at you the same way. The guys appreciate that.”
This is very basic human stuff. Treat the people you work with well, and they’ll work hard for you. It’s also how you build trust.
That trust was a big reason why they were able to weather so many key absences, from Hayward and Irving to invaluable big man Daniel Theis and still prosper. The Celtics maintained a top defensive rating throughout the season, and confidently proclaimed that their success wasn’t a surprise to them. Because it wasn’t.
“This group is special,” Brown says. “There’s two ways we could have went from the Gordon Hayward injury, and we took the right route and it transferred throughout the whole season. I’m really proud of our mindset and it’s really a pleasure to be around guys who have the same mindset as you.”
Mindset is the key word, and team president Danny Ainge has surrounded Stevens with a roster full of players who are “growth oriented,” as Stevens puts it. Those who are familiar with Stevens’ coaching methods know that he draws heavily from the work of Dr. Carole Dweck, who divides learning styles into two categories: fixed and open.
A team with a fixed mindset would have concluded that all those injuries were simply too much to handle. One whose mindset was open considered the same scenario and viewed it as a great challenge to be overcome.
That’s the Celtics, more or less. No one more than Brown, who uses the word mindset so often it may as well be his nickname. His short career has been marked by levels of improvement far beyond what many thought possible, but not Brown himself.
A role player as a rookie, Brown is averaging almost 18 points a game on 42 percent shooting from behind the arc during the postseason. His game includes an array of dunks, floaters, and post-up moves. In Game 2 of the conference finals, he pulled out a lefty floater in transition that was another in a long list of moves we didn’t know he had.
“I work on it every day,” Brown says. “Left-hand finishing. Right-hand finishing. Spin shots. A lot of the stuff I work on, I don’t show. Because in the game it’s not the best shot for the team. But there’s a lot in the repertoire.”
When the series shifted to Cleveland, the Cavs tweaked their defense specifically to limit Brown. That marked the first time in his playoff career he’s been the reason for an adjustment. This is heady stuff for a 21-year-old player, yet Brown’s reaction is to question the very premise that it’s something he can’t achieve.
“Why should we limit ourselves?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s my question. We’re young, we’re hungry, we’re good. No reason for any limits.”
This the essence of what Stevens has created, a free-flowing — albeit structured — environment in which players are empowered to be themselves provided they put in the work. The only limits are the ones they place on themselves.
“This team is the most mentally tough I’ve ever been on,” Brown says. “We don’t back down from nobody. When you have a team like that, you can do anything.”
Beyond Xs and Os and building team culture, being in the moment is what defines Stevens as a coach. The moment, however, is guided by hours of preparation and attention to detail. That filters down to his players and is the basis of their accountability.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s preseason regular season, postseason,” Horford says. “He knows the opponent very well and he challenges us to be better in that regard. You’d better know what’s going on when you’re asked about certain coverages and things like that.”
Stevens’ tactical strength as a game coach is being able to react quickly to situations and make necessary changes and adjustments. His true genius, however, is in getting his players to believe in whatever course he decides to take.
So when Marcus Morris got ready to pull-up for a jump shot with eight seconds left on the clock in Game 3 of the Philadelphia series, Stevens called his most important timeout of the season at exactly the right time, then drew up a play for a layup that was executed perfectly.
Rather than be miffed by having the ball taken out of his hands at such a crucial part of the game, Morris called Stevens “a guru” and suggested the coach has the best out-of-bounds plays he’s ever seen. That this came from a player who built a career on the basis of his unshakable confidence is the inevitable result of all those times Stevens encouraged Morris to let it fly.
Stevens, who freely acknowledges pilfering plays from other coaches, is not infallible. Later in that same game he pulled the trigger on a timeout right when the Celtics were about to get a favorable matchup with Horford in the post.
He would have liked that one back, he said later. In another basketball life, a mistake like that would have taken Stevens right out of the game. In this one, he drew up a play in the timeout, and got Horford a layup.