Celtics coach Brad Stevens still watches as many NBA playoff games as possible. The ones he misses live are recorded and available to be pored over at any moment.
Stevens appreciates the blocked shots and 3-pointers and everything everyone appreciates. But he looks for more. He looks for a new play to mimic. He looks for lesser-known players to track. He looks for any morsel that might indicate why these teams have reached this point while so many others have failed. It is productive work, but it is not always pleasant.
“The better season you had,” Stevens said, “the harder it is to watch.”
Last year, the Celtics nudged into the postseason with a losing record before being swept by the Cavaliers, who reached the NBA Finals. Losing is never easy, but that did not feel like a lost opportunity.
This year the Celtics won 48 games and finished tied for the third in the conference. Then they hobbled into a challenging first-round matchup against the Hawks. After the deciding Game 6 loss at TD Garden, Stevens called it a “sour ending” and said it pained him to admit that Atlanta was simply the better team.
“The losing eats at you like no tomorrow and the winning is more a sigh of relief than anything else,” Stevens said Monday during an interview with the Globe. “That’s the toughest part about coaching, I think, is that the longer you’re in it, the more winning becomes, ‘Phew, I’m glad we won,’ and the losing is like just the most brutal thing ever.”
Quietly, Stevens was encouraged this season continued the three-year trend of progression. But he said the playoffs were evidence that a steep climb remains.
And that is why, almost immediately after a long season came to a sudden end, Stevens resumed the chase. Yes, he hears the pundits who increasingly refer to him as one of the brightest tacticians in basketball, but he does not think he has an unusually beautiful mind.
“All that does is say you’ve got to work harder at this to get better, because the reality is I think the magic is in the work,” he said. “I think you just have to work as hard as you can. Sometimes you’re going to fail, but the way I look at it is if you’re always focused on the process, you’re going to fail forward, and you’re going to keep building and growing. That’s what I want to be about.”
Stevens already has given homework to his staff. The coaches will analyze Boston’s offensive and defensive structures, they will break down Celtics and opposing players, and they will dive into the schemes of other teams. In a month they will reconvene and share their findings.
For Stevens, of course, this is a year-round pursuit that begins long before the summer. During the All-Star break he broke down the final five minutes of close games from the first half of the season. Soon, he will dive into the rest of this year, hoping to identify what worked, what did not, and most important, why?
“You always have to be growing,” Stevens said, “so I’ll continue to not only encourage our staff but will do so myself, getting with other people around different levels of basketball, different sports, and just try to get a little bit better.”
Stevens’s pursuits go to the outer edge of sports. He consults with psychologists and sleep specialists and professors who have studied resolve and resiliency.
“Anything we can do to help push us forward, even just a little bit, we’re all ears for,” he said.
On Monday, he met with Dr. Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies grit as a key to success. Stevens initially reached out to Duckworth two months after he was hired in the summer of 2013, and they have spoken several times since then. Duckworth even met with the Celtics during a trip to face the 76ers this season.
“I could barely tell you the Celtics were a basketball team before we started interacting,” Duckworth said in a telephone interview. “But I could tell from our correspondence that [Stevens] was serious, helpful, and insightful. One thing I think he does really well is not only tell people the things he thinks are important, but that he himself has to learn these lessons, too.”
Stevens knows this is an important summer for the Celtics, and there probably will be substantial change. He focuses on player development, mostly ceding to the front office regarding personnel matters. But he does offer some insight.
During the season, for example, if an opposing bench player is a challenge as the Celtics create a game plan, Stevens will e-mail president of basketball operations Danny Ainge: “Let’s watch him for the rest of the year, because he was certainly hard to prepare for.”
Stevens already has sent Ainge a full evaluation of the Celtics, too, detailing the progress and where he thinks they should upgrade the roster. Sometime soon, Stevens will have Atlanta Hawks redux, as he dives into the playoff series one more time. He will not use it as motivation, though. He will do it because it is progress.
“The longer I’ve gone on in coaching, the more I take everything as information and not as much emotional,” Stevens said. “It’s not as much tied to the result as it is, ‘OK, this is the information we got from a big win that we need to be aware of as we move forward. This is the information we got from a six-game playoff series against Atlanta where we came up short. And now, how do we address that?’ ”