Celtics know they have a game-changer: Their coach

Celtics know they have a game-changer: Their coach

PHILADELPHIA – It seems like another lifetime ago when the Celtics came to Philadelphia with an 0-2 record and were as thirsty as thirsty can get for their first win of the season.

The night began with uncertainty because of Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury just three nights earlier.

But it ended with the jubilant Celtics escaping with a 102-92 win.

One of the main heroes for Boston was Jabari Bird, a late second-round pick who was a last-minute addition to the active roster due to Hayward’s injury.

His pestering defense of J.J. Redick was a game-changer, evident by him playing 14 minutes but posting a plus-minus of +11. 

It ushered in the “Next Man Up” movement that would be part of the identity of the Celtics all season.

But even more important, it reinforced why “In Brad, We Trust” isn’t just some catchphrase a few players adopted. It’s the bedrock for why these players have a Teflon-strong faith that whatever decision Stevens makes, it's going to work out.

“That’s because we see it works out, all the time,” Terry Rozier told NBC Sports Boston. “And it doesn’t matter where you are on the depth chart. You better be ready because sooner or later, Brad’s going to give you a chance to show why you’re in the NBA.”

He’s not the first and certainly won’t be the last coach talked about in such terms.

But what makes Stevens’ situation in Boston so unique is the cool, calm and collected demeanor of his players in the heat of battle. Many of those players - based on their experience and place in the pecking order of playing time - defy the norm to play with tremendous poise and focus in intense environments and situations.

Stevens has the Midas touch when it comes to plucking any player in a Celtics uniform off the bench and into the game at the right time for the moment that needs their particular skill.

“That man Brad Stevens, he’s a guru,” said Marcus Morris. “He might have the best out-of-bounds plays I’ve ever seen.”

Morris was referring to a pair of last-second timeouts called by Stevens in overtime of Game 3 Saturday against the Sixers, the last of which involved Morris in-bounding the ball to Al Horford, who scored on a layup - while being fouled by Robert Covington, though no call was made - that proved to be the winning basket with 8.4 seconds to play.

Horford added a couple of free throws with three seconds left to pad the 101-98 victory.

“He [Stevens] called the switch; he knew what was going to happen,” Morris added. “He called the over-the-top pass...”

Still, Stevens does more than just call great plays.

He has infused confidence in every player on the roster to the point where when they enter a game they have no trepidation about being successful in whatever they're tasked to do.

Semi Ojeleye, a second-round pick of the Celtics last June, made his first NBA start in the first-round series against Milwaukee with one primary task in mind: slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo.

While some were surprised that Ojeleye got the starting nod in the final three games of the Bucks series, Ojeleye remembered how he did some good things defensively earlier in the season when matched up against Antetokounmpo and knew there was a chance he would have a more prominent role against Milwaukee.

But as a starter?

Ojeleye didn’t see that coming.

However, the confidence Stevens showed in Ojeleye earlier made it a lot easier for him to step into the more high-profile role as a starter and eventually become a central figure in Boston advancing to the next round.

“We don’t win the [Milwaukee] series without him,” Stevens said.

And Boston, up 3-0 in this series against Philadelphia, has made similar rotation tweaks that have paid off in this series as well.

In Game 2, Stevens inserted Greg Monroe in a critical second-quarter run that brought the Celtics within five at the half after trailing by more than 20.

Boston would eventually take the lead and ultimately win, 108-103.

“That’s just part of what makes him good, a great coach,” Monroe told NBC Sports Boston. “That’s a testament to guys staying ready, too. Semi [Ojeleye] did it; other guys have done it throughout the season. He does a great job of putting you in positions to succeed, for sure.”

That confidence in players such as Bird, Monroe and Ojeleye, those without an All-Star pedigree and haven’t necessarily proven themselves to be big-moment players in the NBA, is what makes this team so unique.

“It goes back to how Brad interacts with his guys on and off the court,” Rozier said. “He knows each player like the back of his hand, so he’s going to put you in the right position, he’s going to put you in the right spot, to be great.”

Ojeleye added, “He knows his guys. He knows what we do well. He knows our strengths. He puts us in position at the right time of games to let those strengths sign. It’s a credit to him for knowing us, and a credit to us players for knowing our strengths and playing to them.”

Still, this is the NBA, where player egos have a tendency to at times override quenching the thirst for team success.

That doesn’t seem to be an issue for Boston, especially when you see so many different hands involved in winning with no regard to where they are in the food chain of playing time.

It seems everybody seems to get enough to feed on.

“We’re winning,” Rozier said, grinning. “We love winning more than anything.”

And it’s not just the players, either.

Let them tell you, Stevens’ appetite for winning isn’t all that different than it is for the players.

“He’s a hungry young coach,” said Marcus Smart. “He’s always eager to learn. He’s always willing to learn. Brad’s the type of guy, he can admit his faults and his mistakes. But he makes sure it doesn’t happen again. When you have a coach like that, it’s hard to bet against him.”



Celtics lose first meeting with Toronto; Sox rotation

NBC Sports Boston Photo

Celtics lose first meeting with Toronto; Sox rotation

Kyle Draper and Tommy Heinsohn look back at the Celtics first meeting - and first loss - against the Raptors. Marc Bertrand joins Gary Tanguay on Arbella Early Edition to discuss David Price redeeming himself and what the rotation should look like in the World Series, and Danielle Trotta and Phil Perry are joined by Beatle to talk about their NFL picks during Football Fix.


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Toronto's good. The addition of (a healthy) Kawhi Leonard? Even better

Toronto's good. The addition of (a healthy) Kawhi Leonard? Even better

TORONTO – Only 15 seconds into Friday’s game between Boston and Toronto, Kawhi Leonard and those enormously large hands of his had a steal.

By halftime, he was trending towards a double-double with nine points and five rebounds, a reminder to us all why he’s widely considered the best two-way player in the NBA.

And the performance he put on against the Boston Celtics only confirmed his status as he led the Raptors to a 113-101 victory over the Celtics (1-1) which was Toronto's seventh straight home win over Boston, and 11th in their last 12 meetings.

Leonard finished with a game-high 31 points and 10 rebounds for his second double-double in as many games this season with Toronto (2-0).

“Just went out and tried to lead by example,” Leonard said. “Coach (Nick) Nurse and Kyle (Lowry) did a great job of calling some plays and giving me the ball when in rhythm, and (I) made shots.”

Said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens: “He is a great player, and he is a great two-way player. He certainly looks really good.”

Boston’s Kyrie Irving also had high praise for the two-time All-Star.

“He’s just a special talent,” said Irving who led the Celtics with 21 points.

Which is why so much of the Toronto offense went through Leonard who forced Boston to try and double-team him at times which had mixed results.

Marcus Morris, one of several Celtics tasked with defending Leonard, is quick to acknowledge how talented a player Leonard is.

But he also recognizes a lot of Toronto’s offense flowed through him, making it all the more likely for him to put up big, eye-popping numbers.

“That’s the biggest thing; he’s getting the ball every other play,” said Morris, referring to Leonard’s 10-for-25 shooting night which was 11 shot attempts more than the nearest teammate. “He’s a good player, been a good player; not taking nothing away from him. But he getting the ball every play? You gonna get 30. That’s how I feel.”

But what Leonard did was more than just score a bunch of points.

He dissected the Celtics defense in every way imaginable, whether it was beating someone off the dribble for a score, drawing a foul, or draining a 3-pointer.

Leonard had almost as many free throw attempts (nine) as the entire Celtics team (10), in large part because of the mismatches the Raptors were able to create for him via pick-and-roll switches or just initiating the offense quickly when he was being guarded by a Boston player who was at a clear disadvantage.

“Anytime he goes through you to try and score I don’t think you are doing anything wrong coverage-wise,” Stevens said. “I think when he gets to the rim uncontested or you are fouling him, then I think we have to do a little bit better. He’s going to create some of that stuff.”

And when he does, it makes an already tough Toronto team all that more difficult to beat.

His arrival has not only bolstered the Raptors roster, but also meant four-time All-Star Kyle Lowry has to adjust to having a different running mate.

“The transition has been fine; I’m a true professional,” Lowry told NBC Sports Boston. “At the end of the day, I have two good teammates coming in (Leonard and Danny Green). They’ve got championships. With that kind of pedigree coming in, you accept it … they got what we want. It’s been a smooth transition.”

It certainly looked like it, particularly down the stretch when Toronto closed out the game with a 12-2 run.

“Just some miscommunication on our end as well as some effort plays, including myself,” Irving said. “Just some mistakes down the stretch, that’s all. Turnovers here and there, they got up, Kyle (Lowry) hit a big three and then a step-back. Kawhi (Leonard) had a wide open shot. We had some good looks down the stretch too; just couldn’t capitalize. Just need to be better down the stretch.”

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