Celtics

Popovich remains standard, but Stevens heading towards coaching greatness

Popovich remains standard, but Stevens heading towards coaching greatness

BOSTON – Gregg Popovich was in a playful mood prior Monday’s game, especially when asked about Brad Stevens.

“I don’t think that much of him,” quipped Popovich.

Of course, everyone within earshot knew Popovich was joking, but just for good measure, Popovich clarified his thoughts.

“He is a special person,” Popovich said of Stevens. “And that’s on and off the court. He’s very intelligent. Intelligence is fine. But if it doesn’t come along with incisiveness and judgment and emotional maturity, it doesn’t do you much good. He’s got all those things and that’s large; not many people have that. It shows the way he handles people, the way he coaches. He’s going to be a great one before it’s all over with and he’s already a hell of a coach.”

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Popovich is the standard every NBA coach is measured against.

And Stevens?

He’s measuring up quite nicely, leading the Celtics to more wins every year he has been an NBA head coach while showing signs that he may be the coach-in-waiting to become an uber elite-like coach akin to Popovich.

Of course, Stevens has to continue to elevate the Celtics among the NBA’s elite, which means at some point sooner rather than later he has to bring home Banner 18.

But between now and then, Stevens will continue to help foster a winning culture that in many ways, resembles what San Antonio has done for years.

That’s how the Spurs can lose a player as important as Tim Duncan was to their franchise a couple years ago, and still bang out 61 wins in the first year after he retired.

And that’s why regardless of who plays for them, there’s a feeling the Spurs will consistently be in the hunt to win an NBA title.

The Celtics aren’t there yet, but it’s clear that Boston is gradually putting together the pieces to have a franchise that can compete at the highest levels in both the short and long-term.

Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are proven All-Stars, and will be joined by Gordon Hayward next season when he’s back in the mix after suffering a severe ankle injury in the season-opener.

Boston has the kind of youth that has Celtics Nation giddy when they think about the future which will be led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown who have both shown signs of being potential All-Stars in the future.

The Celtics’ present and future were on display in Boston’s 108-94 win over the Popovich-led Spurs, a first for Stevens and a first for the Celtics since 2011.

Irving had 24 points to lead all scorers. Horford had his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 13 rebounds.

Brown had 18 points while Tatum grabbed 11 rebounds.

And the man bringing all that talent together in a cohesive fashion, is Stevens.

He often downplays his impact and his role in the team’s success, but players know all too well how important Stevens is to the Celtics.

Every year has been a milestone of sorts for him, a road marker pointing towards coaching greatness at a time when there really is no clear heir apparent to Popovich, the standard by which every coach is measured against and truthfully, fall short of being on that level.

One thing Stevens has been adamant about is that while he loves coaching, he has no plans of being around coaching for as long as Popovich who is now in his 22nd season coaching the Spurs.

“That would be smart on his part,” Popovich said, grinning. “I would advise him to do that. He’s got many more capabilities than me.”

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

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Celtics thought it would be good . . . but this good?

After arriving in Boston and spending some time with his new teammates, Kyrie Irving felt good about this group doing big things this season. 

But when asked about the experience thus far being what he thought it would be, Irving responded, “It’s probably exceeded that.”

He’s not alone. 

Few would have envisioned the Celtics (15-2) would have the best record in the NBA at this point, let alone be riding a 15-game winning streak which ranks as the fifth-best winning streak in franchise history. 

Irving and his Celtics teammates will try and keep it going tonight when they take on the Dallas Mavericks.

Irving’s ability to mesh with his teammates and still find success was among the many questions out there when the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers pulled off the blockbuster trade this offseason. 

Blending in has not been an issue for Irving, bolstered by the reality that his game stands out. 

We saw that in Boston’s 110-99 win over the Atlanta Hawks, which was a game in which Irving had 30 points on an insanely efficient 10-for-12 shooting night. 

There were many factors that went into Irving’s strong night against the Hawks, but he said it really came down to one thing above all else.

“I just made some damn shots for once,” Irving quipped. “That right there kind of made it seem better than I actually been shooting over the start of the season.  It would also contribute to being able to be in the right spots and guys being selfless in their approach driving to the basket or getting into the paint. It’s tell-tale sign of all of us getting more comfortable.”

Here are five below-the-radar story lines to keep an eye on as the Boston Celtics face the Dallas Mavericks, with Boston gunning for its 16th straight win. 

BROWN’S POSITIVE PLAY

Jaylen Brown has been on a bit of an offensive tear of late, the last being a career-high 27-point performance in Boston’s win over Atlanta. But even more telling is how well things seem to flow with him on the floor. Brown’s plus/minus this season is +146 which is tops among all players in the Eastern Conference. His closest competition in the East? That would teammate Al Horford whose plus/minus this season is +143. In addition, Horford has had a positive plus/minus in every game this season. 

YOGI FERRELL

You can count Yogi Ferrell among the ones that got away from Brad Stevens when he was coaching at Butler. Ferrell, who played at Indiana, was a player on Stevens’ radar when he was coaching at Butler. “I recruited Yogi, unsuccessfully,” Stevens told reporters in Dallas. While Ferrell came on strong as an undrafted free agent with the Mavericks last season, Stevens said there’s nothing about Ferrell’s game now that he didn’t see when he tried to woo him to Butler. “He would have been awfully good at Butler,” Stevens said.

HOMECOMING

While Marcus Smart grew up in Flower Mound, Texas (less than an hour from Dallas), tonight’s game is a homecoming of sorts for another Celtics player – Semi Ojeleye. The 6-foot-7 forward played at SMU which is located in Dallas. A second-round pick by Boston in last June’s NBA draft, Ojeleye has been among the many surprise performers for the Celtics this season. “We knew he could be a versatile defender,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Probably has exceeded our expectations in that regard with his ability to guard one (point guard) through five (center) at certain times. And he’s been pretty consistent shooting the ball. Right now, embracing that kind of 3-and-D role is what he has to do and he’s done it well.”

DEEP DRAFT CLASS

The Boston Celtics struck gold by drafting Jayson Tatum with the third overall pick. But as you look at the teams that had lottery picks in last June’s NBA draft, few come away feeling disappointed or discouraged by the player selected. The Dallas Mavericks are among the teams pleased with their first-round pick, Dennis Smith Jr. who was selected with the ninth overall pick. He has emerged as one of the top rookies this year, averaging 14.5 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. And yes, he was a player that was on the Celtics’ radar leading up to last June’s draft. “We had Dennis in and he was really impressive,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “He’s a guy that’s going to have a great career and he’s got good veteran players around him to help kick it off.”

DIRK NOWITZKI

The numbers aren’t anywhere close to what we’ve seen for the bulk of Dirk Nowitzki’s illustrious career that’s now in Year 20. But there is a demeanor about him that seems to be at peace with where he’s at basketball-wise, even if the wins aren’t nearly as plentiful as he’s accustomed to. “I appreciate his game a ton,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “Just watching him talk on the court, cheer on the bench, sit at the scorer’s table with a smile on his face. You can’t play this long and be this good this long if you don’t’ love it. Everybody says they love it, but he’s got a different level of passion. You can feel it, you can see it. You root for guys like him to have success.”

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

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WATCH: Celtics vs. Mavericks

Tune into NBC Sports Boston to watch the Celtics play the Mavericks in Dallas. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by Nissan on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game preview: C's need to play Smart in Dallas

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