The good news for the Celtics is that Brad Stevens has been here before
In the fall of 2009, Butler University returned almost its entire roster from a basketball team that had gone 26-6 the year before, including future NBA Draft picks Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack.
It was coach Brad Stevens’s third season as head coach of the Bulldogs, and expectations were high, as evidenced by the mid-major program’s No. 10 national ranking.
But then the season began, and Butler lost two of three games during a Thanksgiving tournament in Anaheim, Calif., and on Dec. 22 it fell to 8-4 following a 10-point loss to Alabama-Birmingham.
“Our defense was the one that was really hurting us,” Stevens said Wednesday. “And what turned that around was we just decided to be nasty tough. And we just went with it. And then, all of a sudden, everything fell into place and we just put everything else aside and gritted our teeth and played.”
After the UAB loss, the Bulldogs rolled off 25 wins in a row. Their season ended in the national championship game, after Hayward’s halfcourt buzzer-beater came within inches of sending Butler to an improbable win over Duke.
On Wednesday night, after his highly touted Celtics team had suffered its most puzzling loss in this puzzling season, a 117-109 setback against the lowly Knicks, Stevens thought back to that year at Butler as an example of one of his most talented teams finding a way to shift everything from wrong to right before it was too late.
He also added a more recent example that included several members of this current Celtics bunch. Two seasons ago, Boston was coming off a 48-win season and a summer in which it had added four-time All-Star Al Horford.
The team trudged to a 13-12 start before finding its rhythm and closing with a 40-17 surge to earn the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Horford stood in the locker room late Wednesday night and nodded his head when Stevens’s recollection of that squad was relayed to him.
“I think that that year we really stayed the course,” he said. “We kept preparing, we kept doing the right things. And that was two years ago. Yeah, that was a team that was playing really hard, really committing, doing the things that we needed to do, and eventually we kind of broke through.
“Right now, what’s concerning is the fact that focus and playing hard at that level is not there like it needs to be. That’s what concerns me, so that’s something that we have to . . . we’ve addressed, and we have to do it.”
One apparent difference between that Boston team and this one, Horford said, is that those Celtics constantly felt like they had something to prove. These Celtics, with three former All-Stars and a cast of young rising stars, do not necessarily have that attitude.
“The position that we’re in right now, I think that we just expect to get it done,” Horford said. “You forget everything that you need to do to win games.”
Even last season, Horford said, the team gained strength from adversity, when it was forced to find its way in the playoffs without injured stars Hayward and Kyrie Irving.
In the coming days, Stevens probably will look back more at his teams that found a way to rebound from uninspiring starts. Maybe there will be clues or hints there that are relevant now.
But on Wednesday, he also emphasized that just because his teams have found a way in the past does not mean this team will find a way now. It is not a matter of snapping your fingers and waiting until the playoffs.
“It’s not guaranteed that you’re going to be able to turn it around,” he said. “The reality is you have to grind it out, you have to work, and you have to be able to weather all this other stuff that’s going along with it.”
The schedule certainly is set up for the Celtics to escape this rut. Just three of their next 12 games will be against teams that have winning records, and the Pelicans and Pistons are just barely above .500.
But the Celtics already have shown that they are not really in a position to fall back on that. Their last three games came against teams with a combined record of 22-32, and they lost all of them.
After the loss to New York, numerous players questioned the team’s effort and stressed that even though the season is young, they must play with urgency, as if they were fighting for a playoff spot.
“For whatever reason, we thought it was going to be easier since we have all of this talent,” Horford said. “We thought we were just going to get it done. That’s not enough. We have to do the little things and play the Celtics way that we’ve played here in the past.”
Added Irving: “We just can’t wait anymore, honestly. From myself, everybody else as a collective, to our coaching staff, we just don’t have time to really be waiting to kind of see if guys are going to give that extra effort.”