SAN ANTONIO — At the NBA Coaches Association meetings last September, Celtics coach Brad Stevens asked Gregg Popovich for about 15 minutes of his time. The next thing Stevens knew, he was soaking up a one-hour tutorial from the Spurs' coach.
"I just let him talk the whole time," Stevens said. "He's the best, and it's pretty clear we can all learn a lot from him.
"We talked mostly technical stuff, but he's just a really good coach. I mean, an hour wouldn't do him justice. Maybe 10 books and a full year of trying is the right way to do it. He's just got a great pulse on his players and he understands how to get the most out of every single person on the team. He has a great culture. He just clearly is terrific at what he does."
It turns out that Popovich feels similarly about Stevens. Prior to the Spurs' 101-89 win over the Celtics on Friday night, Popovich said he had watched Stevens's Butler games as often as possible and had "stolen from him plenty." When Stevens joined the Celtics last season, Popovich said, his reputation preceded him.
"Everyone in basketball knew a long time ago, before he was in the NBA, that he was a heck of a coach," Popovich said. "So once he came in, I guess we just gravitated to each other in that respect, being two Indiana guys. We just talked in general about the league and what he was going to be up against, and how different the sport is and all of that. And obviously he's caught on very, very quickly."
In addition to his coaching acumen, Popovich said Stevens's approach with his players is effective.
"He's a good teacher, and he's straightforward, he's honest," Popovich said. "There's no smoke or anything like that. So players react really well when you're direct with them, and he's done a good job of it."
The Celtics canceled their Thursday practice, mostly because they are undermanned and in the midst of a grueling stretch that offers little time to rest.
But the well-timed break also allowed Stevens to see his former team play in the NCAA Tournament.
Stevens and several of his assistants gathered in his hotel room and watched No. 6-seeded Butler defeat No. 11 Texas, 56-48.
"He was excited about the win, but I was the one jumping up and down," said assistant Ronald Nored, who played for Stevens at Butler. "He was just sitting on the couch, but that's just how he is."
Stevens did show some outward joy.
His Twitter account had been dormant since September 2013, but on Thursday afternoon he posted: "Way to go Dawgs!!! March on!"
Stevens was Butler's head coach from 2007-13 and he guided the Bulldogs to national title games in 2010 and 2011. He said he enjoyed watching Thursday's game, but it was clear that he was not wistful.
"I'm just happy for the people that get the chance to experience it," Stevens said. "I got a chance to live it. It was unbelievable to live. It was better to live because of who I was with. I've gotten a chance to do that. Other people are getting their opportunity to do that, and it's fun to see."
Celtics guard Avery Bradley played for Texas and had considered offering Stevens a friendly wager on the game, with the loser buying dinner for the winner. He decided against it because he didn't think Stevens would accept.
Bradley said he ran into Stevens on the hotel elevator soon after the game, and he expected the worst.
"I thought he was going to talk trash," Bradley said with a smile, "but he didn't."
Butler faces No. 3 seed Notre Dame on Saturday.
Thomas still out
Stevens said point guard Isaiah Thomas’s lower back bruise continues to improve, but that it remains quite sore. Stevens called Thomas “very unlikely” to play against the Pistons on Sunday, and said he assumed he would also miss Monday’s game at Brooklyn. “The swelling, to be honest, hasn’t gone down as much as they’d hoped,” Stevens said. “And that’s the No. 1 thing holding him back.” . . . Stevens said he will probably speak to president of basketball operations Danny Ainge soon about when to recall rookie James Young from the D-League’s Maine Red Claws. Young was 4 for 16 from the field in Maine’s 110-109 loss to Grand Rapids on Thursday. “I anticipate him being back shortly, for sure,” Stevens said.