After the Celtics season came to a sudden end against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals May 8, coach Brad Stevens sat at the dais and shifted much of the blame to himself, just as he had done throughout his team’s puzzling season.
“I’ll be the first to say that as far as any other year that I’ve been a head coach, it’s certainly been the most trying,” he said. “I think I did a bad job. Like, at the end of the day, as a coach, if your team doesn’t find its best fit together, that’s on you. So I’ll do a lot of deep dives into how I can be better.”
This could have been viewed as a tactic to absorb scrutiny so the players would not have to. But former Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry said that was not the goal.
Shrewsberry, who recently accepted an assistant coaching position at Purdue, has been perhaps Stevens’s most trusted confidant on Boston’s bench for the past six years. And Shrewsberry saw up close how this challenging season wore on his close friend.
“I think he really beat himself up,” Shrewsberry said in a phone interview. “Even when he was doing a great job, even when he was putting everything toward it, he still looked toward himself during all those moments. Hopefully guys appreciated that.
“He was always looking for ways to fix our problems and saying, ‘How can I be better to help these guys be more successful?’
“But I think Brad, it probably still eats him up. But now it’s kind of laid the foundation for him in how things need to be, and how he’s going to approach things in the future.”
Stevens has not spoken publicly about the season since it ended in Milwaukee three weeks ago. But Shrewsberry, who has been around the Celtics’ training facility quite often while preparing to move to Indiana next month, said Stevens almost instantly started planning for what comes next.
“He’s definitely locked in,” Shrewsberry said. “He’s back to reading all the quotes and seeing what the best teams are doing. ‘Here’s where we failed, here’s how we’re going to correct it, and we’ll get to the roster when it happens.’
“But he’s all the way back and locked into next year and being ready, like, let’s have a great one next year.”
Stevens is hardly alone, Shrewsberry said, with the rest of the staff and even some players already gathering at the practice facility to focus on what comes next. He said there is a hopeful vibe that is noticeable and perhaps even surprising, given what the Celtics just scuffled through.
“It’s kind of a ‘when can we start?’ ” Shrewsberry said. “ ‘How can we get through this summer so we can get back to playing again?’ There’s kind of an optimism, and a bad taste that you want to get rid of quickly.”
Each year, Stevens makes a highlight reel for his players that includes clips of other teams doing things the Celtics admire and hope to perhaps emulate. After the loss to the Bucks in Game 5, Stevens said the next collection of teaching moments would be filled with Milwaukee highlights.
Shrewsberry (who still refers to the Celtics as “we”) said the rest of the playoffs have provided plenty to pull from.
“The Bucks showed us something, and there’s a little bit we can take from them in terms of how they played,” he said. “Little things you can take from Toronto, Golden State, Portland. Every little edge you can grab from those guys, I think Brad’s looking at all of those and saying, ‘How can I make this better? How can we add this little tweak for next year and be better?’ ”
This season’s struggles, however, remain somewhat confounding for the coaching staff. Shrewsberry said it was frustrating that the Celtics were unable to identify the root of their struggles. If they had, he said, perhaps they could have found an elixir before it was too late.
“We were never able to really galvanize ourselves as a team for a long stretch,” he said. “We would do it in short spurts, but then just wouldn’t carry that over. That’ll be something that eats at us as coaches and players.”
Shrewsberry, who was one of the architects of Boston’s highly ranked defense, said it was not an easy choice to leave for Purdue, where he also served as an assistant from 2011-13. Although he loved coaching in the NBA, he missed the relationships that are formed when recruiting and then coaching a player through four years of college. In the NBA, roster changes come suddenly and constantly.
He also missed having a role in building a team, a task that is handled by general managers in the NBA and coaches in college. Over the last two years, Shrewsberry had been vying for college head coaching jobs but was ultimately passed over after interviewing at places such as UMass and Saint Joseph’s.
“I felt like I’d done everything I needed to do,” Shrewsberry said. “I’d worked my way up in the college game and then added six years of experience in the NBA. I thought it was going to be a lot easier.
“I thought I had something that was a little bit different and a little unique to bring to the table that other people didn’t have. It was frustrating, and what made it more frustrating was a lot of it became public, too.
“It’s like being on ‘The Bachelorette,’ like, six times. I was like the Bachelorette All-Stars where they just keep bringing you back and you keep getting rejected all the time.”
For the Indianapolis native, the chance to return home to a familiar school was too much to pass up, even as an assistant. Stevens offered his blessing, and Shrewsberry will take much of what he learned under Stevens to his next stop.
“The detail with which he goes through things,” Shrewsberry said, “there’s an art to that.”