Boston’s wunderkind coach has painted a masterpiece this season – arguably his best job during his five-year Celtics career – and as such, had made an undeniable case for the Coach of the Year award.
There are several deserving candidates for the honour and you could make a legitimate argument for any of the following: Toronto’s Dwane Casey, Indiana’s Nate McMillan, Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Utah’s Quin Snyder and Philadelphia’s Brett Brown.
But while all those coaches have excelled in some form or another, Stevens checks off practically every box as someone with results and circumstance on his side.
Brad Stevens’ thoughts on his Coach of the Year candidacy: "Could care less. There’s 29 other great coaches, and just to be a head coach in this league is enough. … There’s no way that I would ever consider myself to be in that race." pic.twitter.com/ZyYNoBNYCF— Chris Forsberg (@ESPNForsberg) March 31, 2018
Casey in particular has been a frontrunner for much of the second half of the season as the Toronto Raptors have thrived while playing in a new, more modern system. Their bench, consisting largely of young guys, has also turned into a dominant unit and as a result, Toronto are leading the Eastern Conference with a 55-21 record.
That’s impressive, no doubt. But the Celtics are now just two games behind in the standings despite having an infinitely tougher road.
The case for Stevens isn’t centred on the fact they’ve won 53 games – after all, Boston finished with that many wins last season – but based, more specifically, on the ‘how?’
Gordon Hayward, an All-Star who may be the Celtics’ best all-around player, was lost five minutes into the season. Everyone knows this, but because it happened so soon, it can be easy to forget.
As if that wasn’t enough bad injury luck, Boston have also been without a number of their most important players for various stretches – 26 games missed for Marcus Morris, 12 for Marcus Smart, 16 for Kyrie Irving, 13 for Daniel Theis, 12 for Jaylen Brown and eight for Al Horford.
That’s why there have been times this season where you could have confused the Celtics for their G League affiliate, the Maine Red Claws.
Yet the wins have kept coming as Stevens has wringed every last bit out of a depleted roster that returned all of four players from last season’s Eastern Conference Finals run and is filled to the brim with youth.
No matter the hand he’s dealt, Stevens continues to succeed and in a league where talented teams can often make coaches look good, there’s no doubt that in Boston the inverse is very much true.
Stevens has made his case and it’s one that can’t be ignored.
As recently as a week ago, the hierarchy at the top of the Eastern Conference was a foregone conclusion.
And they’ve done all of it while dealing with multiple injuries to some of their most important players. Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart haven’t played March 11 and in their absence, Boston have also been without Jaylen Brown for five games, and Al Horford and Marcus Morris for two. Not to be forgotten is Gordon Hayward being sidelined since the season opener.
Despite all the adversity, the Celtics have tied their win total of 53 from last season, when they finished atop the East standings and reached the conference finals, and now have a shot at grabbing the top seed again.
The victory against Toronto pulled Boston within two games of the Raptors, with both teams having six games left in the season, including another head-to-head meeting on Wednesday.
“Nobody on the other team [is] going to care who we got out there, so we can’t care, either,” said Celtics guard Terry Rozier, who had 21 points and seven assists on Saturday.
“We just go out there and we just play. We don’t even think about it. Our coaches do a great job, no matter who we got, to put us in the right position to make us successful.”
Along with Rozier’s contributions, Boston received 25 points from Morris and 24 from rookie Jayson Tatum.
The trio have significantly stepped up their play since Irving and Smart last played a game, with Morris averaging 21.9 points on 50.0 per cent shooting from the field and 51.4 per cent from 3; Rozier tallying 18.2 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game; and Tatum averaging 17.9 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting 50.4 per cent overall and 44.4 per cent from long range.
Tatum has been especially impressive considering his age (20) and inexperience. With Irving not around to carry the scoring load, the phenom has taken on more responsibility as both a scorer and playmaker.
Against the Raptors, Celtics coach Brad Stevens even unleashed Tatum at point guard for stretches with back-up Shane Larkin also out to injury, and he rewarded the faith by dishing four assists and finishing without a single turnover.
After appearing to hit the rookie wall in January and February, Tatum has rebounded to take his game to another level in March.
“I just think as he gets more experience, he’s getting better,” Stevens said. “He’s done a great job working in the weight room, doing different things to continue to go through the long season, and he’s really, really starting to peak, I think. It’s been fun to watch.
“We played him at the one some tonight, which we haven’t done yet, and it allowed us to be really big on the other end of the floor, which was nice. But obviously, he’s just a talented guy. He does a lot of good things.”
Even if Boston don’t end up overtaking Toronto and enter the playoffs as the second seed, the way the past couple weeks have been an encouraging sign for their ability to potentially survive in the first round without Irving and Smart.
Former NBA stars Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Ray Allen and Grant Hill are officially part of the 2018 class that will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, it was announced on Saturday.
Joining them will be NBA All-Star and coach Maurice Cheeks, women’s basketball notables Katie Smith and Tina Thompson and college basketball coach Lefty Driesell.
Nash and Kidd are considered two of the best point guards and passers ever and will fittingly be inducted together after dominating the league for much of the past two decades.
Nash, who is currently serving in a consulting role for the Golden State Warriors, earned MVP honours in consecutive years (2005 and 2006), making him one of just 11 players to ever accomplish the feat. He was also an eight-time All-Star, a three-time All-NBA First Team member and one of the best shooters in history, being part of the 50-40-90 club (field goal, 3-point and free throw percentage) four times. Only John Stockton (15,806) and Kidd (12,091) rank ahead of Nash (10.335) for most career assists.
Kidd, who was fired as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, earned 10 All-Star appearances, five All-NBA First Team selections, four All-Defensive First Team honours, two gold medals at the Olympics and a championship with the Dallas Mavericks. He also ranks second all-time in career steals with 2,684, trailing Stockton’s 3,265.
Allen, like Nash, is considered one of the greatest shooters and hit arguably the most important shot in NBA history with his corner 3-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. That led to Allen winning his second title with the Miami Heat, adding to a career that saw him make 10 All-Star Games, win a gold medal at the Olympics and finish with the most career 3-pointers all-time with 2,973.
Hill, meanwhile, was Co-Rookie of the Year with Kidd, a seven-time All-Star and winner of two national championships with Duke at the college level.