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Brad Stevens Appears To Reach Breaking Point, All But Calls Celtics Soft

Brad Stevens is the NBA’s youngest coach at the age of 38 and he appears to have reached a breaking point of sorts in the early stages of his second season with the Boston Celtics. 

Expectations weren’t high following a 25-win season, but they are a disappointing 5-11 even after an overtime win over the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday. A victory against the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 8 put them at 3-3, but a run of eight losses in 10 games has moved the Celtics toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference. 

Stevens, a native of Indiana, exudes Midwestern charm and has won over Boston fans with his boyish looks, calm demeanor and positive attitude -- which oddly enough aren’t traits typically associated with New England. Stevens is among the most dedicated and hardest-working men in basketball. In order to move up the ranks from volunteer to full-time assistant to head coach at Butler in less than seven years, a relentless work ethic is required. 

Your drive must then become legendary to jump straight to the game’s highest level with just a handful of years of head coaching experience.

Stevens knew when he accepted Danny Ainge’s offer that winning wouldn’t come easy. The Celtics continue to transition in the aftermath of the Big Three Era and the future is still questionable with Rajon Rondo only signed through the end of the season. Effort hasn’t been an issue for the team under Stevens, but recently he has started to tire of a maturation process that is still very much active. 

“Maybe I have not done a good job of recognizing that it is a process because I’m not really all that interested in the process, even though that all I used to talk about,” Stevens said bluntly. 

The DePauw alum is refreshingly honest, but it didn’t take him long to learn how to master the art of saying something without really saying anything -- a virtue that Bill Belichick introduced and has spread among Boston’s professional coaching ranks. Stevens began to show cracks in his veneer on Tuesday night after the Celtics blew a 23-point lead and lost to the Hawks in Atlanta.

“When it comes easy, we’ve been good," Stevens told reporters after the loss. "When it gets tough, we haven't. … Simple formula."

With 24 hours and a flight back to Boston to ruminate on his team’s struggles, Stevens remained frustrated in their inability to close out games and string together a consistent 48 minutes of basketball. 

“A lot of people have asked me ‘Does this team need to learn how to win?’ and I’ve been bristling at the question because we all see that we want to get over the hump,” Stevens admitted. “I don’t know. Maybe there is some of that.”

Boston coughed up a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter against Detroit, needing an extra five minutes to get past the three-win Pistons. The win came with both good and bad omens. A win is a win, but yet again they couldn’t maintain a double-digit lead. Stevens paused for a moment when asked after the game if he was pleased with his club’s physicality.

“I thought we were really good as far as handling the pressure late. What did we end up with, 12 turnovers? In an overtime game, that’s pretty good,” he elaborated. “I thought that obviously their interior got us a little bit, but their interior gets a lot of people. I thought it was a better response. 

“We needed to respond, but I’m not going to overreact we’ve only done it one game.”

The Celtics are just 3-7 in games featuring margins of five points or less in the final five minute, an indication that they play smallest at the biggest moments.

“One of the responsibilities that I feel like I have is that we’ve got to get some of these young guys, whether they are ready for it or not, to be the guy that is making a play, not only to make a big basket late in the game but to stop a run,” Stevens said. “Just having the toughness or desire to want to make that play and I got to do a better job of making those guys believe it.”

Physicality has been one of Stevens’ favorite words as of late, a diplomatic way for the coach to harp on his team for being soft without creating a salacious headline.

“It’s being able to operate with any kind of physicality on both ends of the floor,” he said when asked to define physicality. “Inevitably, the game is going to ramp up a notch, people are going to get into you, people are going to be physical with you and you have to get to where you want to go on cuts with or without the ball regardless of that contact. I think on the other end of the court, you have to be able to direct people, within the rules of the game and without fouling, hold your ground and take away spots. That’s going to be impacted by you some because of the strength factor, so that’s what I’m referring to when I talk about physicality.”

Reading between the lines, you can take those 120 words a variety of ways. He may subtly be calling out his team, or simply stating facts as a guy with a front row seat to how the Celtics have played over the last few weeks. It’s hard to quantity physicality, but only the New York Knicks attempt fewer free throws than Boston. Maybe he has a point.

Brad Stevens does nice guy about as well as anyone in the NBA, but his patience is wearing thin. It may not be long before he takes a page from Stan Van Gundy, his coaching counterpart on Wednesday night. After losing to the Los Angeles Lakers the night before, Van Gundy called his team “messed up.” 

When pressed to elaborate on what has frustrated him about his team, Stevens refused to use the word soft but it floated in the air at the TD Garden like the snow flurries that are so common this time of year.

Coach's Corner: Celtics' Open Offensive System, LeBron's Lab, Malik Rose

Beware of Boston

The Boston Celtics' roster is a strange collection of flawed vets, solid but unspectacular young players and Rajon Rondo. On paper, it makes the team seem destined for mid-lottery obscurity. But the preseason has offered glimpses that this Boston team has the potential to be more competitive than originally expected.

Brad Stevens has crafted an open offensive system that has maximized the skill sets of this eclectic group of players. The young starting frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger -- two inside-outside threats that can both draw opposing frontcourt players out of the paint and take advantage of weaker defenders on the block -- are vital components. Having two bigs on the floor at the same time with the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc is a rarity in a league where some teams don’t even have a single one in their projected rotation (looking at you, Lakers). It allows Stevens and the Celtics to maximize their spacing; and space is the most valuable commodity in basketball.

Sullinger’s improvement as a shooter -- the young big man has shot 14-of-26 from 3 this preseason after a woeful 26.9 percent last year -- is what should really drive the optimism in Boston. Without an effective 3-point shot, Sullinger seemed like a young player without an impact skill. If this preseason form holds up, the ability to operate from beyond the arc will make Sullinger a valuable commodity when it comes to team offense. No longer will he be just a wide body limited to occasionally bullying smaller defenders in the post.

His improvement mirrors the general emphasis on the shot for the Celtics under Stevens. Boston has been particularly aggressive about hunting shots from deep early in transition. Anyone from Olynyk to rookie Marcus Smart has been given the green light to launch open 3’s if they can find a good look before the defense is set. Given that Sullinger, Olynyk and Avery Bradley, three of Boston’s five projected starters, have combined to shoot 53.2 percent on 77 attempts from behind the arc thus far, this seems like a wise decision.

Now that doesn’t mean the Celtics are blindly rushing up the court shooting 3’s. Thanks in part to Evan Turner’s new role as a playmaking point guard in the absence Rondo, the team’s halfcourt ball movement has been almost Spurs-ian at times -- pinging across the interior and around the perimeter until it finds an open shooter. Turner’s numbers aren’t very impressive, and it’s hard to tell if he’s changed much from the player he was in previous stops, but Boston needs someone willing to take advantage of their newfound space with dribble penetration. Until Smart gets a better feel for the NBA game, Turner is best suited for that role.

An interesting development to keep an eye on, however, will be how Boston handles the acquisition of Will Bynum. As of now, it seems as though Bynum -- acquired this past week from the Pistons in exchange for Joel Anthony despite missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury -- is set to be waived due to roster restrictions. But two seasons ago in Detroit, Bynum played in a lineup that had a similar offensive set up as Boston’s does now and enjoyed a career year, along with posting a very respectable PER of 16.62. If Boston was truly trying to be the best team they can be (and not utilize roster spots in order to develop young, fringe players like Phil Pressey), Danny Ainge should be working hard to find a place for Bynum on this roster. If Ainge does keep the veteran guard around to claim a place in the team’s smart offensive system, it will add even more intrigue to Boston’s season.

LeBron’s Laboratory

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about NBA preseason basketball is that it’s a time for experimentation for several of the league’s stars. They’ll try some crazy shots, a new move or maybe learn to operate from a different spot on the floor. There’s no downside in doing this, because even epic failures don’t matter much given preseason games are pretty much meaningless in the grand scheme of things -- especially when you’re coming off four straight Finals like James.

Because James is very much a bored basketball savant at this time of year (and sometimes during the regular season), he seems to entertain himself by attempting random, high-degree-of-difficulty shots just to see if he can pull them off. Take this one from the Indiana game Wednesday night.

It didn’t make any highlight reels of note, but it was probably one of the most insane shots of a game where he attempted a Dirk fadeaway, a 10-foot running left handed floater, a skyhook and a crazy spin finish layup where he switched the ball from his left to right hand in midair (that last one did make highlight reels). At first glance, it may not seem too much out of the ordinary, but let’s break down what happens in this sequence to get the full effect:

As James drives into the paint, he executes a pullover; ripping the ball way over the head of 6’5” Rodney Stuckey as the Pacer wing swipes at the ball from his help position

- James bounds into the lane while manipulating the ball away from Stuckey, gets a slight bump from a second Indiana defender and still somehow completely stops his momentum by decelerating onto his right leg. This is not an easy thing to do.

- To top it off, LeBron then holds himself for a beat on his coiled right leg, then without his left foot ever touching the ground, pushes back into a fadeaway and drains the shot

There’s a good chance that referee Kipp Kissinger didn’t give him the continuation for an “And 1” because he simply had no idea what to make of what he was seeing.

More Fallout From the Sixers Shameless Tanking

Scrolling through games on NBA League Pass is a total crapshoot when it comes to announcers. The spread ranges from total homers, former greats that don’t make much of an effort to be prepared and the occasional insightful duo. Unfortunately for basketball fans, one of the best in the business -- Philadelphia’s Malik Rose -- is stuck calling games for a team no one will want to watch.

Rose can relate to both the casual fan and hardcore hoops junkie with his spot-on analysis.  Whether it’s explaining how the bench can help with defensive communication or what should happen when a team rotates out of defending pick-and-rolls near the sideline, Rose is a rare commentator that actually makes the viewer feel like he or she has actually learned something while watching the broadcast. Rose simply has a knack for helping fans understand and appreciate the nuances of the game. It’s unfortunate that no one outside of loyal Sixer fans (or people with a serious case of basketball schadenfreude) will have much incentive to tune in and experience it.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Atlantic Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on each team in the NBA continues with the Atlantic Division, which features a lot of major media markets with huge fanbases who have had to sit through some pretty substandard play in recent years. In the last two years, the front offices in Toronto, New York and Philadelphia have turned over while Boston began a major rebuilding effort, so the level of basketball should improve ... eventually.

If there’s any hope for this division in the near future, it comes from the Raptors, the poster boys for the benefits of internal improvement. They went from 34 wins to 48 wins without making any major additions in the off-season. After dumping some underperforming veterans, they had a good young player at each position - Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas - and they all got better at the same time.

The group was better than the sum of their parts, as they didn’t have a weak link on either side of the ball and their combination of skill, length and athleticism at every position gave their opponents fits. Lowry and Johnson pretty much are who they are, but the ages of DeRozan (24), Ross (23) and Valanciunas (22) means they should have more room to grow over the next few seasons. That’s how you get better if you can’t bring in any marquee free agents. 

The future is murkier for the other four teams in the division, who have taken radically different approaches to team-building in the last few seasons. The Knicks and the Nets have gone full YOLO with decidedly mixed results while the Celtics have accumulated assets in the hopes of flipping them into stars and the 76ers have taken the slash-and-burn philosophy to its logical conclusion. It may take a few more seasons for it all to sort out in the wash.

- Toronto Raptors: Terrence Ross

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Ross was inserted into the starting line-up after the Rudy Gay trade, where he became one of the catalysts for the Raptors' surprising turnaround. He didn’t have a huge role in the offense, but he played his role well - stretching the floor, moving the ball and playing solid defense. While he wasn’t asked to do too much, there were flashes of real talent. Not many fifth options can score 51 points in a game.

At 6’6, 200 with elite athleticism, shooting and ball-handling ability, Ross has all the tools to be a big-time shooting guard in the NBA. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan still dominating the ball on the perimeter, he may not get many more opportunities this season, but he should be in a better position to capitalize on them. If Ross can make a leap similar to the one Klay Thompson made in his third season in the league, Toronto has a chance to surprise people again.

- Brooklyn Nets: Mason Plumlee 

Mike Krzyzewski surprised many people when he pegged his former college player for a spot on Team USA this summer. While Plumlee didn’t have a big role on the team, the experience should provide him with a lot of confidence as he enters his second season in the league. At 24, Plumlee is almost a fully-formed product, an extremely athletic big man who can crash the boards, run the floor and provide a nifty skill-set around the basket for the Nets.

He was extremely productive as a rookie and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t be even better as a second-year player. The question is how many minutes will be available for him behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett. While Brooklyn is committed to starting both 7’0 at the moment, KG is clearly better as a C than a PF at this stage in his career. Either way, with so few young players on the roster, Plumlee will have a big role in their future.

- New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert 

This is a make-or-break season for Shumpert, who saw his offensive numbers decline and his role get smaller in each of the last two seasons. The question is whether his development was short-circuited by an ACL injury or whether he is best suited for a role as a defensive specialist. He’ll need to figure out an answer quickly, as he is playing for a contract extension for an entirely new coaching staff and front office that has no real ties to him.

Shumpert clearly has talent - at 6’5 210, he’s an extremely athletic guard who can stretch the floor and he ran point in college. Even if he’s still primarily used as a spot-up shooter who attacks close-outs, he could be the best two-way player on their roster. He could be one of biggest beneficiaries of a more free-flowing offensive attack under Derek Fisher, as he was mostly reduced to being a spectator in the Knicks more isolation-heavy approach in recent years.

- Boston Celtics: Tyler Zeller

While Zeller is a new acquisition, he is a good example of the type of young player whose improvement in his third season in the NBA could pay dividends for his team. With Cleveland fully committed to an ultimately doomed push towards a playoff spot, there wasn’t room for Zeller to get much playing time, especially after they acquired Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline. Nevertheless, he was productive in his limited time on the floor last season.

At 7’0 250, Zeller is a big body who packs a good amount of skill on his frame. He can play out of the high post and the low post and he has flashed the ability to knock down mid-range shots and facilitate offense. While he will never be a great shot-blocker, if he can establish himself as a legitimate defensive anchor in the post, he could secure a long-term starting position in Boston. After two years of waiting his turn, he’s got the chance to show what he can do.

- Philadelphia 76ers: Michael Carter-Williams

When Carter-Williams was healthy and playing with Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, the 76ers looked an actual legitimate NBA team last season. With all three of those guys gone, it’s going to be a very long year in Philadelphia, one measured more by player development than wins and losses. If MCW doesn’t let all the losing get to him, it could be the perfect opportunity for the second-year PG to expand his game and develop as a player.

At 6’6 185, he has a decided physical advantage on almost every PG in the league. He is really big and really fast and he is a handful for almost any perimeter defender. He can get to the rim, draw fouls and create easy shots for his teammates - if he can force people to respect his outside shot, he is pretty much unguardable. If he can gradually improve his decision-making over the next few seasons, both as a shooter and a playmaker, the sky is the limit.

Grading The Deal: Celtics Capitalize In Three-Team Deal With Cavs, Nets

Itís hard to assume what else the Celtics could have done with the $10.3 million trade exception, but receiving what they did is a very nice haul. Adding a seven-footer to your rotation and a first-round pick is an obvious win, but Thorntonís expiring deal brings other options as well.

Grading The Deal: Celtics Keep Avery Bradley

The Celtics seem confident Avery Bradley will be healthy and that heís not done developing.

As Long Season Ends, Danny Ainge Provides Insight Into Celtics' Offseason

After trading Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets, Ainge was left with a disorganized roster and future flexibility.

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

A Year After Back Surgery, Jared Sullinger Isnít Yet Satisfied

A little more than a year since going under the knife, Jared Sullinger is headed to All-Star weekend for the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans. He talks to RealGM about how he remained strong during rehab and where he sees his career going.

Fix It: Boston Celtics

The Celtics traded away two of their three best players, hired a rookie head coach without previous NBA experience, and their best player has sat out the first two months of the season recovering from a torn ACL. Where has that left them? Second place in the Atlantic Division and a shot at homecourt advantage in the playoffs.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

Gerald Wallace Still Learning To Accept New Role With Celtics

Rajon Rondo is the unquestioned leader of the Celtics, but Gerald Wallace will have to take on somewhat of a mentoring role as well. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce helped keep the mercurial point guard in check when necessary and Brad Stevens will turn just 37 in late October.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

Summer League Player Evaluation: Kelly Olynyk

It isnít by chance that Kelly Olynyk is so refined offensively. As a kid, he was taught the game of basketball by having it broken down for him completely, making him a very fundamentally-sound player. In the same way, he must break the game down on the defensive end of the floor in order to elevate his IQ and develop his skills as a defender.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

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Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

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The End Of A Celtics' Era Regardless

A page needs to be turned and the Clippers are doing Danny Ainge and the Celtics a favor by making it impossible not to flip it and jumpstart the rebuilding process.

Ray Allen's Choice

Only Ray Allen can tell you what he really felt about the way he was treated after deciding to leave the Celtics, but none of that really matters. Heís four wins away from his second NBA title and his decision to join the Heat has been validated. That, however, wasnít what this was all about.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

Celtics Pushed To Brink With Poor Performance In Game 3

Now, the Celtics, who many felt no one wanted to face in the first round, are a loss away from a sweep. Before long, the questions surrounding the team will have a much farther reach than just the scope of a poor playoff series.

Knicks Protect Homecourt With Second Half Defense

The Knicks allowed only 25 points in the second half of Game 1, only to allow 23 points in the second half of Game 2. New Yorkís second half performance in Game 2 set a new franchise playoff record for the fewest points allowed in a half.

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