There was a reason the Celtics brass secretly traveled to Indianapolis 3½ years ago to negotiate with Brad Stevens, their longtime target as a successor to Doc Rivers.
There was a reason they left Indiana ecstatic about signing Butler’s coach to a six-year, $22 million contract to become the Celtics’ coach, even though he was an NBA neophyte who had never even coached a summer league game.
They knew Stevens had a humility and passion for the job and not a sense of entitlement. He was not like Rick Pitino or John Calipari, who came to the NBA from the college ranks feeling as though their mere presence was going to change the landscape of the professional game.
Stevens was more about substance than style. He was an evenhanded technician and teacher of the game, constantly searching for methods to give his team an advantage.
His search for those edges, ways to get extra possessions, creative times to call timeouts, and his constant tinkering with lineups has led the Celtics to their resurgence. Following Cleveland’s 89-77 victory over the Celtics Tuesday night at TD Garden, Stevens’s performance left LeBron James to remark, simply, “They’re a well-coached team.”
But Stevens’s search for these advantages has been a process of trial and error.
In Wednesday night’s 119-116 loss at Detroit, the Celtics were in the midst of a rally when Stevens decided to cap the surge by intentionally fouling one of the Pistons’ poorer free throw shooters, one of his favorite tools.
The Pistons had the ball and a 106-102 lead with 2:54 left when Stevens called for Isaiah Thomas to intentionally foul Reggie Jackson. It created an inbounds situation where Stevens planned to intentionally foul Andre Drummond, a 36.8 percent free throw shooter, before the inbounds pass.
With more than two minutes left in the game, that strategy would have merely resulted in two free throws. Since the chances of Drummond hitting both free throws were minimal, the Celtics would have received the ball back facing perhaps a 5-point deficit.
Stevens’s plans were foiled when Jackson spun and fired a 3-pointer. The shot had no chance, but that didn’t deter the officials from rewarding him a trip to the foul line for three free throws. It didn’t necessarily ruin the Celtics’ chances of winning, but it certainly did hinder them.
Conventional thinkers might have asked why Stevens didn’t just just bank on his team getting a defensive stop, a defensive rebound, instead of relying on intentional fouls.
The Celtics’ defense has shown — although not Wednesday — it is good enough to make consistent stops.
But Stevens is not conventional. He has devised some inventive ways to create extra possessions or limit opponents to zero or 1-point possessions instead of potentially 3.
For example, on Wednesday he continued his trend of intentionally fouling a poor free throw shooter during the opposition’s last possession of the quarter.
Instead of yielding to a potential 3-pointer to end the period, Stevens would rather foul the poor free throw shooter and give up two attempts for a chance to get one final possession in the period.
These are brilliant ideas, but they don’t always work. Sometimes it might be in Stevens’s best interest to trust his defense to get a stop rather than deploy his foul strategy and give up 1 point. He tried that method with Drummond, who after missing his first two free throws finished 3 for 6 from the line. Stevens stunned Joel Anthony with an intentional foul, and Anthony hit one of two foul shots.
The Celtics players don’t necessarily agree with some of Stevens’s methods, but they understand.
“It just makes the game slower,” Thomas said. “I’m the type of guy, I want pace to the game. I want some rhythm to the game and it definitely knocks your rhythm a little bit, but it’s the thing coaches do. For the most part it works, it just slows the game up.
“If they’re missing the free throws, it definitely frustrates [the opposing team]. You got the guy that’s missing the free throws thinking about it, and it works in the other team’s favor. But when it doesn’t work, it’s boring, a boring game for sure.”
But the players trust Stevens and he will continue to search for ways to give the Celtics even the slightest advantage.
As we have discovered over the past three years, his ways don’t always result in success.
Poor free throw shooters aren’t always poor. Sometimes his team doesn’t always execute his after-timeout play with five seconds left on the shot clock.
But there should be confidence in Stevens that he will make the right call most of the time, that he will continue to devise ways to maximize possessions and limit an opponent’s scoring opportunities.
While some traditional NBA coaches are stuck to old ways and aging philosophies, the advantage Stevens gave the Celtics when he assumed the job, even as young and inexperienced as he was, was that he was open to fresh ideas.
While he may not be right all of the time, Stevens continues to prove he’s the right coach for this organization’s quest toward elite status.Gary Washburn can be reached at Gary.Washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GWasburnGlobe