As far as this postseason run goes, the one that will be remembered best came late in that overtime win in Philadelphia, the perfectly diagrammed, expertly crafted play that resulted in Al Horford’s wide-open, go-ahead layup. They’ve come to be known as after-time-out plays, or ATOs for short, and in the world of coaching hierarchy, have emerged as one of the most popular barometers for establishing a pecking order.
The Celtics’ Brad Stevens is one of the best at them. So much so that his players love talking about how he does them. So much so that they’ve even found themselves being asked by opponents about how he does them.
“I have heard it before,” Marcus Smart was saying Thursday, his brow still sweating from a long, rigorous practice in advance of Saturday’s game in Cleveland, where the Celtics would take a commanding lead in this Eastern Conference finals if they can win their second road game of the playoffs for a 3-0 series lead. “And it’s understandable. He’s a great coach. He’s a crafty coach. Some of the plays he draws up you go, ‘Umm, I don’t know if that’s going to work.’ Then it does and it’s like, ‘Sorry I ever doubted you.’ ”
Or as teammate Jaylen Brown put it, “When it comes to ATOs and drawing plays, everybody knows that they’ll be in the right position to score and to be successful.”
Of course, timeout plays aren’t the only things Stevens does well, and as this postseason hurtles toward its championship end, Stevens’s value and influence on the Celtics’ surprisingly deep run has been one of the most popular discussion threads. The hands that were so busy wringing themselves in anguish over his inexplicable shutout in a recent coach of the year contest among other NBA coaches can rest easy now, replaced by his being named one of three finalists Wednesday for the NBA’s official award, well-deserved recognition of a 55-win regular season established in the wake of major injury loss. But it is what these Celtics have continued to do in the playoffs that should crown him even more, even if voting has long since ended.
Stevens has become the face of this team, his ability to balance both sides of the coaching coin — managing the personalities of a roster full of professional athletes while also possessing the basketball knowledge and know-how to help those athletes be at their best — stamping him the keeper of the Celtic way. Without Gordon Hayward, without Kyrie Irving, he has molded the rest of the roster in his calm, confident image, taking us all on a joyride that seemed impossible to imagine back when Hayward’s ankle crumpled and Irving’s knee surrendered. The mismatch against his Cleveland counterpart Tyronn Lue is obvious, with Stevens garnering as much unsolicited praise from his opponents as he gets from his own players.
Take this from Cleveland’s Kevin Love in the wake of Boston’s comeback victory in Game 2: “I think you can actually take a lot from the Boston Celtics. They had all their starters in double figures, and that comes a lot, I think, with not only Stevens putting them in the right position but their level of activity.”
Or this from J.R. Smith: “They are extremely well-coached.”
Or this one from Tristan Thompson: “They are a very well-coached team.”
Or this from one of the greatest of them all, LeBron James, who said before tipoff: “I thought they had a great game plan in Game 1 . . . Brad and the coaching staff did a great job in Game 1.”
James has not been shy in his praise of Stevens for years, which only added to some of the mystery of Stevens failing to get even one vote from his NBA brethren in the recent coach of the year ballot. Of course the coach swore he wouldn’t have voted for himself either, and in the long run, the victory for Toronto’s Dwane Casey couldn’t even help him avoid getting fired.
But it did make me wonder about what other coaches think of Stevens, which led me to call the best coach I ever covered, a longtime high school guy from Jersey City, N.J., who didn’t just lead his program to an unparalleled 28 state championships, but who raised two NCAA Division 1 coaches of his own and who was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame eight years ago.
“He was such a good coach at Butler and is such a good coach now he’s one that other coaches watch with a pen in their hand, taking notes,” former St. Anthony High School coach Bob Hurley told me over the phone Thursday, talking while on his way to Las Vegas to conduct a coaching clinic. “His team is always ready after timeouts. Maybe the best compliment I can give him is that he reminds me of the Spurs, out of timeouts they’re always prepared, the opponent is always at a disadvantage. That Horford play was a perfect example of him running something perfect. He knew what the defense would do, and everyone was in the right place.
“We were in the gym the next day and everyone was talking about it. Everyone I know in coaching enjoys watching him work.”
And he knows them all — son Bobby played for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and now coaches his own program at Arizona State, while son Dan played for P.J. Carlesimo and George Blaney at Seton Hall and was recently named the head coach at Connecticut.
“The balanced offense, the way the guy with the best opportunity gets the shot, the way they play fast, it’s very sophisticated. He utilizes everybody’s talent in what he runs,” Hurley said. “And those late-game situations, it’s like his guys are playing chess and the other guys are playing checkers. Losing Hayward and Kyrie, most people would say they’ve done enough already, but I know no one with the Celtics is saying that.”
They’re saying plenty about Stevens. It’s all good. And it’s all well deserved.