While Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge works to revive the organizational brand by slowly upgrading the roster, coach Brad Stevens must take the necessary steps to regain the team’s respect on the floor.
On Saturday night in Chicago, the Celtics played well enough to win, holding the shorthanded Bulls to 37 percent shooting but losing in overtime, 109-104. The Bulls attempted 40 free throws while the Celtics were whistled for 28 personal fouls. On the flip side, the Celtics attempted 11 free throws while the Bulls were whistled for 14 fouls.
Pau Gasol, who scored 29 points on 9-for-16 shooting, attempted as many free throws as did the Celtics. Jared Sullinger, who scored 16 points with 16 rebounds in 36 minutes, didn’t attempt a free throw.
Stevens attributed the free throw disparity to Chicago’s aggressiveness (true) and said he has no issue with the officiating (he should). Stevens does not have a technical foul this season, and he is being entirely too cooperative with officials during his one-plus year stint as an NBAhead coach.
It’s not that the amount of technical fouls makes for a good coach, but if you look at the technical foul leaders among coaches — Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel — you realize that the league’s elite coaches do ride officials.
Stevens doesn’t have to go out of character and start imitating his idol, Bobby Knight, but he does have to be more forceful with officials and defend his players. It’s rather inexcusable for Evan Turner to score 29 points in 40 minutes and attempt two free throws. Diminutive point guard Aaron Brooks played 20 minutes for the Bulls and attempted five free throws.
The Bulls command respect from officials because of their aggressiveness — but also, Thibodeau constantly rides officials. The Bulls’ flagship radio station used to place a microphone near the team’s bench to give listeners the real atmosphere of an NBA game.
That microphone had to be moved because Thibodeau was dropping so many expletives at officials and his players. Working officials is part of the coaching job. Stevens does not need to become a coach who always believes his team is getting robbed or who overreacts to every borderline call, but on Saturday he needed to make more of a statement.
There are going to be nights similar to Saturday in Chicago where the Celtics have a legitimate chance to beat a better team. They can help their case by being more aggressive attacking the basket — that has been one of their primary drawbacks since Stevens took over — but he also has to convince officials that the Celtics deserve the same respect as their opponent.
The Bulls are second in the NBA in free throws attempted at 27.6 per game, the Celtics 27th at 19.8.
Lack of free throw attempts is going to be a concern until Ainge acquires a pure scorer who can draw fouls. That means Stevens has to be more forceful in defending his players, especially Sullinger.
Despite the fact that he is the Celtics’ best rebounder and is constantly battling against bigger players, Sullinger has attempted just 55 free throws in 31 games, and that lack of respect will lead to frustration. Sullinger averaged 2.74 free throw attempts per game last season, that number has dropped to 1.7.
Stevens does have fire. He is brutally honest with his players but his calm persona is one of the reasons why he gained his first NBA job at age 37. But if the league’s best coaches all have at least four technical fouls (Kerr has five), then perhaps Stevens can learn from observing how top coaches approach officials.
Saturday was one of those nights in which the Celtics’ players needed Stevens to show more explicitly that he had their backs. He needed to get a technical just to make a statement, to show that despite the fact their roster has been stripped of its All-Star talent and the Bulls are filled with more proven players, the Celtics deserve more respect.
It’s not that the officials have no respect for the Celtics, but they are going to make calls for players who have more heralded reputations. Hence, Gasol attempts as many free throws as the Boston team.
One of Stevens’s best attributes is his coolness. That does not need to change but it appears he is so locked in on the execution of his team that he tends to ignore the fact that outside factors — officiating — may influence the aggression or lack thereof of his players.
Sullinger or Turner or Jeff Green are not going to attack the basket with as much vigor if they know they are not going to get a foul call. How many times this season has Sullinger rumbled back down the floor on defense with his arms raised in disbelief after a foul was not called? It’s up to Stevens to demand more respect for his young players. While it’s polite and sportsmanlike to applaud the opposing team for its aggressiveness, Stevens can’t deny officiating plays a sizable role in NBA games.
It’s time for the coach to stand up for his players, even if it means an untimely technical foul. The Celtics are an overshadowed and ignored organization at this point, and Stevens is going to have to fight for greater recognition even it if means stepping out of character occasionally.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Gwashburn.Globe.