OAKLAND, Calif. — Overshadowed by Blake Griffin’s Mozgov-like throwdown over Kris Humphries and another flagrant foul by Jared Sullinger was the rare display of enthusiasm by coach Brad Stevens in the second half of Wednesday night’s 111-105 Celtics loss to the Clippers in Los Angeles.
Stevens usually is glued to the bench during games and at times appears to have a harness around his waist to make sure he doesn’t venture too far from his coaching staff. While San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra nearly reach the free throw line before calling a timeout, Stevens has maintained an extremely serene demeanor on the bench.
Yet, when the Celtics decided to play defense in the fourth quarter Wednesday, Stevens was spotted kneeling near halfcourt, clapping his hands, encouraging his team to press. While the Celtics coach of the previous nine years looked on 25 feet away, attempting to allow his superior team to play through its mistakes and hang on, Stevens appeared officially to assume the mantle of head of the Celtics.
The story line of Doc Rivers facing his former team was hardly of interest Wednesday. His association with the franchise is a cherished memory, but those ties are fading. Stevens brought his underdog team into Staples Center and the Celtics appeared to regain a semblance of confidence after a miserable outing in Denver the night before.
Boston has dropped 9 of 10 heading into Friday’s game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena. It’s likely they won’t win either of the final two games of this West Coast swing, which ends Saturday night in Portland.
But in a fashion representative of the unassuming Stevens, the Celtics officially became his team Wednesday. They played with the same enthusiasm he displayed in the fourth quarter. With the Celtics trailing, 109-105, with 16.4 seconds left, newest Celtic Jerryd Bayless made a stab at Jared Dudley, punching the ball out. Unfortunately, official Courtney Kirkland called a foul on Bayless.
Stevens, standing at midcourt, turned around and pounded the scorer’s table in disgust. That was as animated as Stevens had been as Celtics coach, and that was not lost on him.
“It’s competing, it’s what makes this game so great,” he said. “And gaw-lee, I can lay my head down at night comfortable when we compete like that because we can fix some of the technical things and tactical things. You’ve got to compete.”
What was interesting about Wednesday’s game at Staples Center was the large throng of Celtics fans who turned out, despite the absence of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo. It seemed as if they were intrigued with the 37-year-old Stevens and ready to support the team’s new direction.
The fact they didn’t lay down even after trailing, 100-84, with seven minutes left was an encouraging sign that the end of their skid is near and the growth process is continuing. Stevens was asked whether his team played more relaxed than in previous weeks, and he disputed that.
“My thought would be we played with a better sense of urgency,” Stevens said. “And I’m a lot more concerned about our urgency than playing relaxed right now. Because when we play urgent, we can manufacture some things like we did at the end, and we missed some opportunities there at the end of the game in transition. And I thought we could have been right there.’’
Before the game, Rivers offered no advice to Stevens about the Celtics’ doldrums, saying Stevens is smarter than he is. But Rivers knew full well the Celtics are in the transition mode he wanted to avoid, and watched the astute Stevens push his upstart team for 48 minutes. He was trying to squeeze out a win against a more talented team whose superstar, Griffin, attempted a season-high 17 free throws.
“It just felt like at every point we had a 12-point lead, we kind of relaxed, gave it up, did it again, and that’s how the game felt like,” Rivers said. “You’ve got to give them credit. They’ve been struggling. We had a chance early to get a knockout, we didn’t. They almost pulled it out.”
So the mantle officially has been passed from Rivers to Stevens. The Celtics are carrying the personality of their head coach, and that was no more evident than Wednesday when their enthusiasm and passion almost stole an improbable victory.
The Celtics, who recalled MarShon Brooks from the Maine Red Claws Thursday, are trying to gain an identity but with so many changes it is a difficult endeavor. Yet, the organization will be in good health if the team continues to feed off the personality and demeanor of its coach. Wednesday was fun for Stevens and that was a welcome shift from the past few weeks.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe.