How do coaches get millionaire NBA players to dive for a loose ball on a hardwood floor?
Simple, says Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
“I don’t think there’s any formula for it, to be honest,” he said. “If you want guys that dive all over the place, get guys that dive.’’
Stevens pauses and says that last line is not entirely his own.
“I talked to [former coach and TV analyst] Jeff Van Gundy last night, and that was his quote,” said Stevens. “ ‘If you want your guys to play hard, get hard-playing guys.’ And forever that’s been my own philosophy.”
For Stevens, it goes back to growing up in basketball-crazed Indiana and playing college ball there. He was always quick to pursue a loose ball.
“I dove on the floor many times,” he said. “You come up maybe with a little scrape, but now these floors are pretty smooth when you dive, [players] got all the pads on. They’re pretty well-covered.”
Here’s what Stevens teaches his 10-year-old son: “When there’s a ball on the floor, you’re on the floor. I wouldn’t care about anything else in the game.”
Stevens likes to show the Celtics great hustle plays on video.
“You try to encourage that,” said the coach. “We show Marcus Smart diving. We show [Rajon] Rondo making a diving play against Atlanta. [Avery] Bradley made a play last year against Denver.
“You show that stuff and you try to encourage it. I think the biggest thing is when we see a play like that, we’ll show it over and over and over. If we need an energy boost, we’ll show it.”
Most players get the message.
“But that doesn’t mean you’re going to do it in the moment,” said Stevens. “That’s why I like the guys on our team, because they’ll go down and get the ball. I just think there’s a right way to play the game, and it’s all out, all the time.”
‘There are no excuses’
Matt Howard, who played for Stevens at Butler from 2007-11, was called “the designated floor diver” by Sports Illustrated. He was “a scabbed-knee grinder who finishes every game with his tank on E,” wrote Rick Reilly.
In an email from France, where he is playing in the Pro National Basketball League, Howard summarized Stevens’s philosophy:
“Coach believed firmly that whoever got the most loose and 50/50 balls was going to win the game and he got us to buy into that belief.”
Stevens says Howard was a “warrior” even in high school, but his will to win surprised even his coach during a 2010 game against Wright State.
“He comes over to the bench with nine minutes left, and we were up, like, 28,” said Stevens. “We’re killing them, and he says, gritting through his teeth, ‘This game is not over, play till the end.’
“So we were all, ‘Damn, we all better stay in the game.’ The next play, the ball gets knocked loose and he dives into the first row of the bleachers and breaks a chair to save the ball and we score on the layup. I love Matt Howard.”
At Butler, Stevens had required reading, according to Howard. It included an essay by Jay Bilas, who believes that toughness is a skill and that the first player to hit the floor usually gets the ball. Each player also had to read a book called “The Question Behind the Question” about personal accountability.
“It was, basically, there are no excuses,” said Stevens. “And the only way we’re going to improve is if we’re accountable. You can look in the mirror and say, ‘We need to improve.’ ”
Stevens never gives special rewards for diving at a loose ball or taking a charge — though once he promised to shave zigzag lines of lightning into his hair if Butler could draw six charges in a game.
“But we never did it,” he said, laughing. “We took five and then we took a sixth but they called it a block.’’
The referees were surprised when Stevens quickly agreed with their call.
“I was the first coach to ever say, ‘Block, block,’ ” he said. “So I got out of it.”
Words to live by
Players at Butler were taught the “Butler Way,” which emphasizes humility, passion, servanthood, thankfulness, and unity.
“It’s written on the wall there,” said Stevens. “It’s biblical in nature.”
He loved acronyms like TGHT (“The game honors toughness”) and INAM (“It’s not about me”), which were on the shorts of players at Taylor University, a small college he visited in Indiana.
“Paul Patterson was the coach there for 30-something years,’’ said Stevens. “One of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. I took ‘the game honors toughness’ from him and utilized it with our team when we went on that run in 2010 [to the NCAA championship game].
“Ironically, the current Butler coach [Chris Holtmann] played for him.’’
Stevens also loves the quote, “The pain of discipline is never as great as the pain of regret,” which he credits to Jeff Meyer, who was a young assistant coach under him at Butler.
Howard says he still recites that quote while playing in Europe.
“All those bruises and ‘aches’ from diving on the floor, taking hits making great screens, and taking charges always felt so much better with a win or ultimately holding up a trophy,” he said.
Trevor McLean, founder of the Basketball For Coaches blog, says Stevens connects with his players by gaining their trust and being a great strategic coach.
“He’s brought a young team together and got them to play for the name on the front of the jersey,” McLean wrote in an email. “They know he’s willing to do the hard work to prepare them for the game, and, in turn, they’re willing to give it their all for him when they step on the court.
“He’s also got one of my favorite quotes in regards to hustle: ‘Be great at the things that take no talent.’ ”
Stevens believes he said something like that.
“I remember saying, ‘Control what you can control; be great at controlling the controllables,’ ” he said. “That refers more to trail the screens your supposed to trail. Be reliable in doing your job every day, and part of that reliability is if there’s a ball on the ground and you are near it, you should dive. That’s your job.”
Making a statement
There is no Celtics drill for going after loose balls.
“My biggest fear with doing a loose-ball drill would be two heads would collide, and I don’t want to put our guys in that spot,” said Stevens.
Is it always worth diving?
“Not always,” he said. “But I’d rather see somebody go and fight for it. If they can get their hand on it, yes.”
But not for simply showboating.
“If they’re diving just to dive, and the ball is not near them, I don’t think it’s worth it,” said the coach.
The pros are better at coming up with loose balls than the college kids, according to Stevens.
“I’d say there’s probably more futile attempts in college, where you dive but don’t get it,” he said. “Which becomes a gamble, which becomes a point for the other team. So you’ve got to be smart about when you go down for that thing.”
Was it worth it when Smart dislocated fingers diving for a loose ball in a Summer League game in Las Vegas?
“Yeah,” said Stevens. “We never want anybody hurt, but you’ve got a heck of a lot higher likelihood of getting hurt by not diving,” said Stevens.
Stevens says players like Smart have been diving since their middle school days and will continue diving until their playing days are over. Is Smart a human mop in a Celtics jersey?
“I guess you can say that,” Smart said with a chuckle. “I’ve always been a little out of control since I was a kid. It’s worth it to win, and although you don’t get a gold star or anything like that, the coaches appreciate it.”
On Monday, Smart taught Brooklyn Nets guard Donald Sloan a lesson he won’t soon forget. Sloan let an inbounds feed roll just ahead of him, trying to save time on the clock. When the ball reached the halfcourt logo, Smart became a horizontal human lightning bolt and lunged for it, causing a jump ball.
One of Stevens’s favorite plays came earlier this season when Smart dove like Superman past San Antonio’s Tony Parker, stole the ball, and passed to Jae Crowder for an easy layup.
Smart says it did not hurt to hit the parquet; in fact, just the opposite.
“It feels good, especially knowing about the people that hit the parquet before for you and the tradition that that floor has,” he said. “So it felt good to have my sweat on the floor.”
Stevens says that hustle “gave us a chance to win,” and had a bigger impact on the game than the 2 points.
“A lot of people might say that about a dunk, but to me, it just says that we’re here and it’s going to be a dogfight to win the game,” said Stevens. “You might be beating us by 10 but we’re going to be in this thing until the end because we are not going to relent.”
Stevens looked up toward the Garden rafters, where the championship banners hang, and gave a quick history lesson.
“See those banners,” he said. “They are there because of the sweat of the great Celtics players hitting the parquet. Loscy dove, Cowens dove — remember that long slide? And Bird dove — it was against Indiana when he hit his head on the parquet. And Rondo dove, too.
“All those guys dove.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.