After the Celtics’ practice Monday at the Auerbach Center, as coach Brad Stevens addressed the media to discuss talk of his team’s dysfunction, he looked over to the practice court where a group of his players were joking heartily while participating in a 3-point contest.
Whether the group — which included Marcus Smart, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier — were sincere in their friendly banter or just posturing, Stevens had to be heartened at the sight.
The Celtics have been a disjointed bunch this season and it has reflected in their 35-21 record, a good mark in most seasons but for a team that carried so many expectations, tabbed to return to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010, it’s a major disappointment.
Especially in a town where sports fans have grown accustomed to winning.
The frustration culminated Saturday night when forward Marcus Morris questioned his team’s toughness after a disheartening loss to the Los Angeles Clippers and said playing together hasn’t been fun “for a while.”
That directly reflects on the management skills of Stevens, the bright 42-year-old coach who has risen quickly among his coaching brethren. No longer can Stevens get a pass on locker room issues because he’s congenial or young or the master of allowing players to handle their own concerns. Managing a talented but, in some cases, inexperienced group of players has been more difficult than expected.
He’s as responsible as the players themselves for creating an atmosphere in which most (all is asking too much) are happy. So far he has stuck with his well-respected method of treating grown men like grown men and allowing them to create and manage their own work environment.
That has worked for years in Boston. One characteristic that has garnered the respect of his colleagues and former players is the way Stevens treats his players as equals and disregards any past indiscretions or less than favorable reputations gained in other stops.
That has been effective until this season, which has presented its share of complexities and challenges. Never has Stevens had such a star-studded team with so many personal (not selfish) agendas. Never has he coached a more skilled team and one with more potential.
And yet that potential has not been met. The Celtics are fifth in the Eastern Conference, 6½ games behind the first-place Milwaukee Bucks with 26 games left. And the Celtics face their hated rival, the Philadelphia 76ers, who are fourth, a game ahead of Boston, on Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center.
Stevens, humble to nearly a fault, freely admitted he needs to do more to prepare his team for adversity and ensure his guys enjoy playing together, despite some of their personal goals being sacrificed.
On Saturday, the Celtics blew a 28-point lead and lost by 11 to a Clippers team with five new players that had just traded its best player. To make the situation even more disheartening, the Clippers are coached by Stevens’s predecessor, Doc Rivers.
“I thought Marcus said a lot of stuff you can’t really argue,” Stevens said. “We need to be a lot better at finishing games and handling adverse situations in games. If you’re super connected as a team and you play with great physical effort all the time, then it’s fun as hell. When you go back and forth, then it’s not as fun.”
Stevens has always accepted accountability when the team falters on the floor, but off the floor he likes to let his leaders, such as Irving and center Al Horford, be leaders. But he realizes he needs to become more involved in how his 20-something-year-old players co-exist.
“That’s why I said the other day I’ve got to do a better job of helping and making sure we’re playing to the standard we need to play to. My biggest thing is I’ve had frustrations. We’ve all had frustrations. My reaction to that is I’ve got to do a better job.”
There are some in NBA circles, including some fellow coaches, who privately believe Stevens has received too much credit in his first five years. They respect his talents and consider him a likable person but feel he’s gotten the “Golden Boy” treatment undeservedly.
Some coaches wanted to see how Stevens handled so much talent and high expectations this season, and so far his grade has been mediocre at best.
“I just think I have to do a way better job of holding us to the standard we need to play,” Stevens said. “We just have to play to a better standard to the full four quarters and that’s on coaching.”
Stevens fully realizes the expectations and how this season turns out will change the perception of his coaching ability and the Celtics organization. So the pressure is on for him and his team to live up to the lofty standards that Boston’s sports teams have established.
It’s not lost on him that the Red Sox and Patriots won world championships within 98 days of each other or that the Celtics are the only major Boston sports team that hasn’t won a title this decade.
“Again, I always go back to this, if we’re playing to a great standard and we’re supporting each other and when guys are falling down, we’re flying to get them up and we’re cheering from the bench and when somebody makes a mistake, pat them on the back, then we’re operating at the standard that this town deserves, with effort and teamness,” Stevens said. “To me, I don’t lose sleep at night over the results. I don’t lose sleep at night over not saying it’s fun, that it’s a matter of not doing things the way we need to do them. That’s what I’m losing sleep over.
“To me, it’s about what this town deserves, and they deserve a team that plays with great effort and teamness.”