The tone of Brad Stevens was similar to the Celtics’ attitude toward some of their critical playoff games: a casualness, a nonchalance, a disturbing coolness.
Not that the Celtics president of basketball operations was going to angrily tear into his team and coaching staff for falling short of the NBA Finals when the path was advantageous, but Stevens’s postseason address was passionless.
He confirmed Joe Mazzulla will return. He thinks all of the players are great. He wants Jaylen Brown back. The Celtics need to get “a little bit better” and he believes there’s a razor-thin difference separating him speaking to media at the Auerbach Center and the Celtics conducting shootaround for Game 1 of the NBA Finals downstairs.
But Stevens offered little explanation as to why the Celtics fell short of their goal, and those reasons are obvious. They had a stubborn and inexperienced coach. Stevens didn’t provide the roster with enough depth to win playoff games, even if that depth was good enough to win in the regular season.
Celtics faithful wanted some peace of mind. Some admission that everything isn’t right in the organization. That considerable improvements, not minor ones, are necessary. Stevens asked for more patience.
“The bottom line is we’ve got to be better,” he said. “So, how do we get better? Obviously, whoever is here needs to work continuously to get better and use these accomplishments and disappointments as motivation to become hungrier and continue to work. I have no doubt within the character of our group that we’ll do that.
“And we’ll always look at how we best evaluate our roster and make the small tweaks that could maybe put you over the top.”
Stevens’s basketball acumen should never be challenged. He’s a bright basketball mind, but this doesn’t sound convincing. The Celtics need more than “small tweaks.” They were out-toughed by a less-talented Heat team. They struggled to score in the paint. They lost six playoff games at home.
Their coach admitted he didn’t have his team prepared for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. They looked exhausted and unprepared in Game 7.
“We’re in an interesting situation because we’re 48 minutes away from doing our pre-game shootaround press conference in the Finals,” Stevens said. “There was a lot that went right and we can’t lose sight of that. But we’re always going to be thinking about how to best move it forward.”
Stevens has great loyalty toward Mazzulla and heavily considered that the 34-year-old was thrown into the unenviable situation of leading a team with championship aspirations with no head coaching experience. He deserves credit for leading the Celtics to 57 regular-season wins and the league’s second-best record, but he struggled mightily in the playoffs, his inexperience and obstinance hindering the Celtics from maximizing their potential and playing consistent basketball.
The Celtics lost their defensive identity and responded by chucking more 3-pointers. Stevens didn’t help with his inactivity at the trade deadline and not adding to the coaching staff when Ime Udoka, Will Hardy, and eventually Damon Stoudamire departed.
“Was he perfect? Would he like to have some of those moments back?” Stevens asked. “Every coach would. We all, that have coached, know how hard that is. We’ve got to do our best to support him moving forward.”
Stevens said the Celtics “tried” adding coaching help before and during the season, but failed. That’s a disturbing admission; either the Celtics decided if their preferred assistant coach wasn’t available they were going to stand pat, or perhaps there was an issue with compensation. Either way, the Celtics let Mazzulla down by not adding to the staff, and that’s on Stevens.
“The competition is real; the competition is tough,” Stevens said of the postseason failure. “Miami played a terrific series. The Miami series was a lot harder. They went small fast and spread us out and were running great action. They made it tough for us to defend those guys on the perimeter. They made a ton of shots from a lot of different places from a lot of different people.”
Miami won the series with intangibles and adjustments. The Celtics have to become a tougher team, take the Heat or the Warriors celebrating on their home floor more personally. They need to play with more passion and fire, and they need personnel changes to ensure they can close out contests when late-game execution is essential.
“The goal was not attained,” Stevens said. “So, I look at it as, how can we be a little better? But a lot of times that we were playing, you can see there’s a lot there. So, it’s not far. It’s really hard to be in the mix, so just have to figure out how to get a little bit better. We’ve got a lot of foundation things that are good.”
The Celtics’ championship window is now and management has spent the past few years in regret. They were wasted by the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals in the bubble three years ago. They blew a 2-1 lead against the Warriors and lost their final two games at home in last year’s Finals and this year they were unprepared for the Heat, then galvanized to tie the series only to lose at home in Game 7.
There has been enough heartbreak here. Stevens’s focus has to be a championship, not remaining “in the mix.” The Celtics have been in the mix for seven years, five of those Eastern Conference finals appearances — and no title.
There has to be a sense of urgency this summer to improve. And the always-calm, always-cool Stevens wasn’t going to offer any hints of his offseason plan, but he sounded as if running it back with a few tweaks would be his strategy.
The result could be being back here again next year, watching the NBA Finals on TV.