One of the undeniable subplots as the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers prepare to clash in the opening round of the 2020 Eastern Conference playoffs is the coaching contrast.
On one side you have Brad Stevens, the consistent overachiever who recently signed an extension that left Celtics owner Steve Pagliuca gushing about how Stevens, "has become one of the best coaches in the NBA, and is a real leader on and off the court.” On the other side, Brett Brown, who endured The Process but finds job security as bountiful as Ben Simmons 3-point attempts as the Sixers struggle to meet post-Process expectations.
Some Celtics fans are quick to suggest their team has a coaching advantage. Stevens would be the first to tell you that notion is almost always overstated. Every coach in the NBA is really good at their job and, ultimately, most games are decided by the talent on the floor.
Still, there will be instances in this series in which the decisions that Stevens and Brown make will directly impact how everything unfolds. And the best way to highlight that is to rewind to the last playoff series between these teams.
During Game 3 of an Eastern Conference semifinal series in 2018, the Celtics were down two with under a minute to play on the road. Amid a disjointed possession, Marcus Morris ended up with the ball in the corner with Simmons defending and the shot clock entering single digits. When it became clear that Morris was going to settle for a tough pull-up, Stevens calmly leaned towards an official and requested a timeout — a rarity in a late-clock situation (Morris clanged the shot as the referee called the stoppage).
With whiteboard in hand, Stevens then sketched out a beauty of an after-timeout call that dragged Joel Embiid away for the basket and allowed Jaylen Brown to tie the game with a layup. Later, in overtime, Stevens used a timeout to draw up another set that drew Embiid away from the basket and got Horford a better matchup for the game-winning layup.
This hammers home where Stevens thrives: Putting his team in position to succeed.
Quibble with with his timeouts (he prefers to let his players fight through rough patches) and challenge usage (his success rate only seems lower than it is) but Stevens shines in preparation. The Celtics enter the postseason playing some of their most inspired ball and Stevens has worked hard to make this unique bubble experience as normal as possible for his players. His efforts have been rewarded in a team that gushes chemistry and is starting to play like the elite contender they hoped they could be at full health.
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A reminder: It's on the players to execute from there.
If, say, a point guard (well, a point guard not named Marcus Smart) elects to go rogue and demands to defend Embiid in this series, it’s probably not going to end well for Boston (as a certain series against Milwaukee showed last year). Even the most talented teams can’t benefit from good coaching if the chemistry and continuity isn’t there.
Which is Brown’s challenge. The Sixers are not your typical six seed. They are flush with talent and potential, but they’ve rarely come close to maximizing either. For Brown, the biggest question might simply be how he deploys his talent, especially with Simmons sidelined after knee surgery. Can Brown find the best groups to accentuate Embiid’s talents, all while finding ways to better maximize Horford’s presence?
Despite their very different future outlooks, both coaches won’t lack for motivation in this series. Stevens has overachieved but needs to prove he can get the most out of contender-caliber rosters. After the Celtics’ disappointing finish last year, an early exit would leave his skeptics a bit more vocal. Brown can salvage a disappointing year by pressing all the right buttons in the playoffs and he can be bold with an uncertain future.
Let the chess match begin.