Brad Stevens barely looks like he has aged since high school, so it is fitting that the NBA Education of Brad Stevens continued with a difficult-to-swallow four-game sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Cleveland outclassed the Celtics, well at least from a talent standpoint, if not a comportment one, judging by Game 4’s deterioration into Hammurabi’s Code hoops. The Cavaliers closed the series on Sunday at TD Garden with what felt like an academic 101-93 victory. The series was a hard lesson that will benefit the Celtics and their masterful young coach.
The single most significant development for the Celtics this season was the emergence of Stevens as one of the league’s premier coaches and motivators of men. Of all the assets the Celtics have — draft picks, trade exceptions, cap space — Stevens is the most valuable. He has earned respect and rave reviews from around the league. LeBron took time to send Stevens a verbal Valentine.
“I highly respect their coaching staff, and especially their head coach,” said King James. “A very well-coached team, he put those guys out there every night and put them in a position to try to win the game. I think Brad Stevens is a very good young coach in our league.”
If the best player on the planet feels that way, you can bet other NBA players are making eyes at Stevens, too. That makes Stevens the Celtics’ marquee attraction and best hope of luring a franchise-altering talent to Causeway Street to actually contend with a team like the Cavaliers.
If you’re looking for a silver lining from the Celtics getting swept away, it is that Stevens now realizes he needs such a talent to win in the NBA. The basketball blinders have been removed.
He had his face smushed against the glass ceiling of his coaching acumen by James and the Cavaliers. In the NBA, it doesn’t matter if you are a genetic splice of Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson, and Gregg Popovich, it’s a players league. It always has been and always will be.
Stevens got every last drop of talent out of this team, which played harder than any in the NBA on a nightly basis despite a fluid roster. That’s the Paul Pierce truth, even if a self-effacing Stevens didn’t feel that way.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that about any team I’ve ever been around,” said Stevens. “That’s the problem with coaching. We haven’t played a perfect game yet. We were 40-42 and lost four straight in the playoffs. So, no, I don’t. But I didn’t feel that way both times we went to the Final Four [at Butler], either. So, I think that’s just the way I’m wired, I guess.”
None of Stevens’s tricks worked in this series: Inserting Jae Crowder, who left the game in the third quarter with a sprained left knee after taking a shot to the head that got J.R. Smith ejected, into the starting lineup in Game 4; running his patented plays out of timeouts; intentionally fouling Tristan Thompson in the first quarter of Game 3; rolling out Phil Pressey for defense and energy on Sunday. Stevens tried it all.
He still wasn’t able to get the Celtics a win, although his team did get under the skin of the Cavaliers and left a mark. Cleveland lost power forward Kevin Love to a dislocated left shoulder with 5:22 left in the first quarter when he got entangled with Kelly Olynyk pursuing a rebound, giving Cleveland hoops rage.
It didn’t help Stevens’s cause that his best player, Isaiah Thomas, went Mount Washington cold in the last two games. Thomas, who was just 2 of 9 in Game 3, missed his first 10 shots on Sunday. He was 0 for 7 with more turnovers (3) than points (2) at the half. He finished with 21 points and 9 assists on 4-of-17 shooting.
With 2:47 left in his season and the Celtics down, 91-75, Stevens just stared down at the parquet floor for a few seconds before taking the dry-erase board. Reality had set in.
His team would rev up for one more run, cutting the deficit to 99-93 with 37.1 seconds left after a James turnover inbounding the ball.
This whole series was Sisyphean for Stevens and a group of players that deserve praise for suppressing their egos, banding together, and exceeding all expectations to earn the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics were never able to get over the hump or reach the top of the hill. They had double-digit deficits in every game, including trailing by 21 at halftime in Game 4. They’re now craning their necks looking up at the steep climb to the NBA summit. But they definitely have the right Sherpa.
No one’s playoff baptism was more beneficial than Stevens’s. He has now seen firsthand what playoff basketball is all about — the players.
The fact Stevens is still a little, well, green by NBA standards was revealed after the game.
When talking about how he can build on the Celtics’ surprising season, Stevens talked about how “you’re learning every minute of every day” and how the Cavaliers’ individual talent stretched his coaching and his team.
He then made a reference to growth being constant, even if “we’re fortunate enough to cut down the nets someday.”
Ah, Brad, they don’t do that if you win the NBA Finals. That’s a college basketball ritual.
It might be dangerous to hand Popovich a pair of scissors near media members.
So, Stevens does have some studying up to do on certain intricacies of the NBA. But he’s already shown he is a star student.
The Garden has gone dark, but the future with Stevens on the bench is bright.
For the Celtics and their fans, In Brad They Trust to restore the luster to the NBA’s most fabled franchise.