Brad Stevens knew. Of course he knew.
“I knew that there was the potential that this wasn’t going to be an easy road,” the Celtics’ coach said.
His first NBA season would be paved with losses, for that is the plight of a rebuilding team. Defeats were certain, the only question being how many.
“It was a big concern of mine, that I give my coach the support that he needs,” said Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations.
“Because he hasn’t been through it before.”
Not just the NBA, but enduring so many losses at such a rapid pace.
After all, here was college basketball’s winningest coach ever in his first six years, as Stevens won 166 games at Butler during that span, losing just 49.
With the Celtics, though, Stevens has lost 48 games so far in one season — and loss No. 49 could come Friday when his team plays the Raptors in Toronto.
“I think he’s had a lot of sleepless nights,” Ainge said. “I think it takes a toll. Whether he’ll admit that or not, I don’t know.”
Stevens defers, instead referring to his focus on the process — always the process.
“Having that focus is helpful whether you’re winning or losing,” he said, “because it kind of takes your emphasis, or overemphasis, away from the result.”
From the outset, Celtics management stressed patience, knowing it would take time to turn around a team that essentially was starting from scratch.
The Celtics gave Stevens a six-year contract as proof of that patience, which gave him the luxury of not worrying about job security even when the losses piled up.
But even still, he is frustrated.
“Hey, there’s no way that I’ve been even close to what I want to be this year, and that bothers me,” he said. “I look at each single game that way and that’s the way I’m going to evaluate myself and my performance all the time.”
Does he cut himself any slack, knowing he’s new, that he’s working with a patchwork roster, that Rajon Rondo, his best player, was out for half the season? Of course not.
“You’ve got to push yourself,” he said.
Did he, at any time, accept that losses were inevitable? Of course not.
“I don’t look at it as, you ever accept anything less than getting to your ultimate,” he said.
On any night that he or his team falls short, Stevens is unhappy. His postgame comments might not show it, as he is measured in his remarks, but the disappointment is evident on the face of a man who despises defeat in any form.
“I don’t know anyone who hates to lose as much as he does — and that has not changed,” said his wife, Tracy. “He does have good perspective on things, but when you’re living it, when the ball gets thrown up, he wants to win, and when they don’t, he’s frustrated.”
And even though Stevens has nearly lost as much in one season with the Celtics as he did in six seasons at Butler, he still views losses with the same distaste.
“It’s like if you have to eat a food you don’t want to eat — it doesn’t matter what plate you put it on, you still hate it,” Tracy said.
But, she said, her husband is holding up fine.
“What I love, love, love about him is that he has not changed his approach or his tenacity — the way he approaches every game,” she said. “He’s attacking these games the same way he attacked them in November, in that he has no way given up in that quest to win every game.”
Several Celtics players say the same.
“Throughout the whole year, he’s had a great mind-set,” said Brandon Bass. “Every day, he has a great plan for us to take a positive approach, to try to improve, day in, day out. I think he’s handled it with great poise, really not like a first-year guy.”
The season has had more lows than highs, but Avery Bradley said Stevens has remained level throughout.
“He gets on us when we’re not playing the right way, but he feels like we have a chance every single game,” Bradley said.
Is there surprise that he would be steady amid so many losses?
“Anybody that loves the game that much, they know that losing comes with it,” Bradley said. “It’s all about the rebound after, how you react from a loss.”
The losses have come in torrents. He had never lost four straight at Butler, yet he began his NBA career that way. The Celtics then lost five straight in November, before rising to the top of the Atlantic Division in December.
Then the fall began.
In January, the Celtics posted a 2-15 record, their most losses in a calendar month in franchise history. They had a stretch in February in which they lost six of seven, and currently, they have lost seven of their last eight games.
In college, if he lost, the next game might be several days away, which meant the sting of that defeat could linger. In the NBA, games come fast, some the very next night. In a way, that pace might have helped him to move on quickly, because he has to, or else.
“I don’t know that it makes it any easier to stomach,” he said.
Ainge understands how Stevens feels.
“When you put your heart and soul into something, it’s really hard to lose,” Ainge said. “Coaching is really hard. I’ve said that a million times. I’ve coached in the NBA. It is really hard and losing is no fun.
“I think he’s going to be a great coach and have a long NBA career and I think he’s really going to enjoy his career. But he’s sort of like that rookie great player that you get — there’s a learning curve. Pretty soon, Brad will be taking care of me and telling me about the game. But like this year, I sort of need to encourage him along.”
The Celtics have, for the most part, played hard — and that helps, somewhat.
“At the end of the day, when we play hard, you sleep a little bit better at night,” he said. “The key is to continue to play hard 99.999 percent of the time, because nobody is perfect 100 percent of the season.”
The locker room has also remained close.
“I think that was really important, because this had all the writing on the wall of being a tough deal from the standpoint of not staying together,” Stevens said. “And for the most part, we have stayed together.”
Ainge credits Stevens, saying, “I think he’s done a fantastic job.”
Said Bradley, “Throughout the year, I feel like he matured as a coach. I know that’s kind of weird to say, but he obviously has.”
Some of the most important times in his coaching career were seasons that didn’t go well, Stevens said, and this one certainly qualifies.
“I’m not sure you can take away the pain that he feels some nights and how hard losses can be and how guys might not play as hard on a given night; those things are frustrating,” Ainge said.
“But he’s got a great resiliency and even though he has a sleepless night, the guy is in the office the next morning and back to work.
“That’s what I love about him. As hard as it is, he just works harder.”