Big on Brad:
Boston’s Stevens is quietly emerging as one of the NBA’s foremost coaches, and he might just be getting started.
INDIANAPOLIS – We’re a star-obsessed populace and the NBA is a star-driven league, and these conference finals are from another galaxy. Golden State has Steph and KD, Draymond and Klay. No other names required; you know who they are. The Warriors are playing out West against Houston, led by The Beard and CP3. Here in the East, Cleveland has LeBron. Boston? Boston has Brad. This is crazy, what Brad Stevens is doing, in terms of perception and reality. The NBA is all about the star, the player, the name on the back of the jersey. The rest of us buy into it, because it’s true: Without those guys — without a whole bunch of those guys, unless your team has LeBron James — an NBA team can’t go anywhere in the postseason.
Unless your team has Brad. And then your team can go to the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, even if it has been shedding superstar talent in layers, losing the summer’s biggest free agent acquisition five minutes into the season opener (Gordon Hayward to a broken leg), then losing the summer’s biggest trade acquisition (Kyrie Irving, knee) with 15 games left in the regular season. That’s two AllStars and more than 45 points per game, poof, without compensation. Just … gone. So who’s left for the Celtics? Brad. How did the Celtics win 55 games this season? Why are they still alive in the 2018 NBA playoffs? Why did they take a 1-0 lead on Cleveland, throwing guck into LeBron’s most glorious postseason yet? Brad. Brad. Brad. What’s unfolding in Boston is joyous to watch here in central Indiana — in Indianapolis, in Zionsville, in Greencastle — because Brad’s one of ours. And because he’s one of ours, we know this: He deserves all of it, and will be changed by none of it. He’ll still be Brad. Just Brad. As regular a guy as a guy can be, even as he’s mild-manneredly muscling his way onto the NBA marquee by reminding us that he’s one of the two or three greatest basketball coaches alive.
Don’t get me started on the 2018 NBA coach of the year award selected by coaches. Toronto’s Dwane Casey won that National Basketball Coaches Association award, and eight coaches received votes in all. Brad Stevens received zero. How do you explain that? You don’t. You can’t. You acknowledge it’s there, you shake your head, and you keep it moving.
Let’s go to Cleveland, where LeBron James and his coach, Tyronn Lue, were talking about the Celtics before these conference finals. Lue refers to Stevens as “an all-world coach,” while LeBron makes the argument that Boston, even without Hayward and Irving, is much more talented than advertised. LeBron does this by praising Boston’s coach by name — “You all know how I feel about Brad Stevens” — and then by saying Boston still has plenty of very good players. “Guys,” he called them. Glady Knight had her Pips, Snow White her Seven Dwarfs. Brad has Guys. Now let’s go to Boston, where ESPN’s Rachel Nichols is sitting before the conference finals with three of those guys: forward Jayson Tatum, guards Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown. They really are good players, OK? My point isn’t that Brad Stevens is winning without talent. Tatum, 20, and Brown, 21, are future All-Stars. Rozier, who knows? He entered his third NBA season a career 4.3-ppg scorer but was averaging 18.2 ppg in the playoffs after leading the Celtics to series wins against Milwaukee and Philadelphia. The Celtics have six players scoring in double figures in the postseason entering Game 2 vs. the Cavaliers, in- cluding five-time All-Star power forward Al Horford (17 ppg).
But everywhere you turn, it’s: Brad, Brad, Brad.
And Jaylen Brown, he hears it. In that interview with Nichols, sitting in front of Larry Bird’s retired No. 33 jersey, Brown was saying: “Brad’s a great coach.”
But he also was acknowledging the national perception:
“I think that’s probably what a majority of America thinks: That he’s taking a bunch of nobodies and making them into somebodies.”
And that’s my point: The NBA is a superstar-driven league, and after those injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, the Celtics’ superstar is Brad Stevens.
And this just doesn’t happen in the NBA, where the player is everything. The Celtics added Bird in 1979 and saw their victory total rise from 29 to 61. Cleveland added LeBron twice, drafting him in 2003 and signing him as a free agent in 2014, and saw its victory tally rise from 17 to 35 the first time and from 33 to 53 the second.
Early this week, ESPN was hyping the start of the CavsCeltics series by posting a graphic of “wins in head-tohead matchups” by the series’ two biggest stars: LeBron James and Brad Stevens.
No, Stevens can’t and won’t score a point in this series, and he didn’t grab a rebound or hand out an assist in Boston’s 108-83 victory Game 1. But in the NBA, great offense is a result of great talent. But great defense? That’s great coaching.
And what Brad Stevens did to the 76ers’ Ben Simmons in the last round — then what he did to LeBron in Game 1 — was nasty.
Simmons is the possible NBA Rookie of the Year, a 6-10 point guard with freakish explosion, and the Celtics erased him. In one game he made zero field goals. In another he attempted zero free throws. Overall, in five games, the 76ers were much better when Simmons (-63) wasn’t even on the court.
Same thing happened in Game 1 vs. the Cavaliers. LeBron, whose postseason run has reignited the Greatest of All Time conversation, had his worst game of these playoff by far (15 points on 5-for-16 shooting from the floor; seven rebounds, nine assists, seven turnovers). The Cavs were -32 for his 36 minutes on the court.
Stevens isn’t merely slowing down opposing stars; he’s using them to his advantage.
What’s happening this postseason in Boston happened all the time when Stevens was at Butler, where he would take a nice roster and turn it into something scary. The Bulldogs reached the 2010 NCAA championship game with a future NBA superstar, the aforementioned Gordon Hayward, then did it again in 2011.
When Hayward was in the NBA.
Stevens is just 41. Wasn’t so long ago he was averaging 26.8 ppg for Zionsville High, winning all-conference honors at DePauw University, putting his economics degree to work at Eli Lilly and Co., then doing something crazy and leaving Lilly in 2000 to volunteer in the Butler basketball office.
What happens next seems a bit more predictable: Someday he’ll coach the U.S. Olympic team — just watch — and be offered the Duke job after Mike Krzyzewski retires.
And at some point he’ll get to coach a Boston Celtics team with a healthy roster, a terrifying prospect for everyone else in the NBA.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens calls a play against the Cavaliers during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston.