Opinion: Haunted by Final Four ‘regrets’, Brad Stevens seeks NBA title with Celtics

Story Highlights

  • Game 2: Pacers at Celtics, 7 p.m. Wednesday, TNT, Fox Sports Indiana

BOSTON – It isn’t easy, not any of it, but that’s how Brad Stevens has always made it look. Looked that way when he played high school ball at Zionsville, Indiana and college hoops at DePauw, looked that way when he coached Butler, and it looked that way from the moment he joined the Boston Celtics six years ago.

Even now, in this most unusual of seasons – even with criticism finding a new home at Brad Stevens’ doorstep – there are times it looks easier than it is. And not just on the court.

Two hours before Game 1 of the Celtics’ 2019 NBA playoff series with the Indiana Pacers, Stevens met with the media and was immediately asked for his starting lineup. He declined to give it, saying it would be made public closer to tip-off. The minutes passed, and the final question was another one about his starting lineup, the one he wouldn’t give. This time, the reporter asked if his lineup would value continuity after the Celtics closed the regular season on a hot streak, or would address specific match-ups with the Pacers.

Stevens smiled. You’ve seen the smile. A smirk almost, more boyish than belligerent. He teased the reporter about trying to find another route to his starting lineup, then answered the question this way:

“I’m not that smart,” Stevens said. “We’ll just start five and figure it out.”

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens reacts during the third quarter in Game 1 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) (Photo: Winslow Townson, AP)

As he rose from his seat, Stevens said it again. This time, with a thick Boston accent:

“I’m not that smahhhhht,” he said, smiling as he walked away.

And I’m thinking: Yeah, you are.

Yes you are.

What’s up with Stevens and Irving?

On March 4, The Ringer posed a question on its Boston-oriented but nationally prominent website:

What’s really the matter with the Celtics?

That was the headline. Huge type. Beneath that, before the story began, were enormous photographs of the two most likely scapegoats: a perplexed Brad Stevens, and a glowering Kyrie Irving.

On that day the preseason Eastern Conference favorite Celtics were fifth in the East, 2½ games behind the fourth-place Philadelphia 76ers – three games behind the Pacers in third – and the story noted: “Even Stevens can’t escape some blame. He seems unaware of the fact (Gordon) Hayward is playing like a more expensive Evan Turner.”

That same day, Kyrie Irving said the following to the Celtics media:

“He’s never coached a player like me,” Irving said. “That’s a big transition for anyone to do.”

On Boston radio, WEEI host Marc James has been turning up the heat on Stevens, saying things like: “Brad Stevens gets a pass on this team.” And things like: “If they don’t get to the Eastern Conference Finals, it’s a coaching failure.”

On Tuesday, I find Stevens at The Auerbach Center, the Celtics’ towering new $76 million practice facility. The Center’s huge glass windows overlook Interstate 90, with Boston’s 17 NBA championship banners visible day and night. An 18th banner is visible, too. That banner is blank. 

It’s for the Celtics’ next championship.

This was thought to be the season. This still could be the season.

“Our ending isn’t written yet,” Stevens is telling me after the Celtics’ final practice before Game 2 against the Pacers on Wednesday. “I’ve kept that in mind the whole year.”

We’re standing alone against a padded wall as a pair of Celtics – Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier – get up additional shots after practice. I’m telling Brad that I know him, that he’s never struck me as a guy who loves praise …

“I hate it,” he says.

And I’m pointing out that he has been criticized more than praised this season …

“Oh yeah,” he says.

And so I’m wondering: In a weird way, is there anything refreshing about not being the genius all the time?

And then Brad Stevens says something I’ve never heard him say.

Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens spoke with Kyrie Irving during a game against the Indiana Pacers on March 29, 2019, in Boston. (Photo: Winslow Townson/AP)

Blames himself for 2010, ’11 Butler losses

He thinks of it every day, and every day Brad Stevens kicks himself. Because he replays those games in his head, and it never changes. Butler loses every time. The Bulldogs lost to Duke for the 2010 NCAA championship, and to Connecticut in 2011, and it’s just too much.

Because that was his fault.

Stevens has never admitted to thinking that before. In fact, he has said the opposite. He has said he has “no regrets” about those championship games. But on Tuesday I asked him about shedding the genius label this season, and Brad being Brad – embracing criticism more than praise – he opens up.

“I can tell you right now, anybody that says I’m genius, that is the farthest thing from the truth,” says Stevens, 42. “One of my greatest regrets in coaching is the Butler Final Four runs, because if I would have been a seasoned coach, I think we would have won.

“And that’s one of the reasons why I came here (to Boston). I wanted to grow, learn, get stretched. Having to coach against (the Pacers’) Nate McMillan, against Dan Burke and Popeye Jones and Bill Bayno for seven games in a series? That’s a bear. You have to be at the very top of your thinking and adjusting, and I was not ready for that level at 33 and 34. I told (Butler 2010 and ’11 star) Matt Howard this summer: ‘I regret those games every day.’

“But that’s why I did this,” Stevens says, referring to his move to the Celtics. “I wanted to come and stretch myself. And part of stretching myself is being in these new situations and maybe finding success, maybe finding failure, getting overly praised and overly scrutinized.”

Oh, he's been stretched this season. Think: medieval torture device.

The 74 points in the opener was forgettable but coach Nate McMillan believes his team can turn it around at TD Garden on Wednesday.
J. Michael, IndyStar

Irving and Hayward return; Celtics are worse

It isn’t easy, not any of it, but this is the first time in Brad Stevens’ basketball career that it shows.

Normally when something unexpected happens with Brad Stevens, it means something special, something overachieving: It means this physically unimposing guard becoming the all-time scoring leader at Zionsville, then going to DePauw and becoming an all-conference team captain. It means Butler reaching the national championship game in 2010 and '11. It means going to the Celtics in 2013 and accelerating a massive rebuild, getting to the playoffs in his second season and contending for 2015 NBA coach of the year.

It means reaching the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, losing his best two players the following year to injury – Irving and Hayward – and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals again anyway.


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All of which makes this season seem so strange: You mean, it’s not easy? Having all that success, winning all those games – it’s no guarantee? For Brad Stevens, it has always been guaranteed. He has been a sure thing, a coaching savant from the day he did that damn fool thing and gave up the makings of a lucrative career at Eli Lilly to become an entry-level grunt on Thad Matta’s staff at Butler. That was 2000. Seven years later, he was the Butler head coach. He was 30. You know how that turned out.

How this Celtics regular season turned out? Nobody saw it. A year ago the Celtics won 55 games and took LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers to Game 7 of the conference finals, and that was without Hayward or Irving. Having both return this season to full health? With LeBron headed west to the Lakers? Seemed obvious what would happen.

And not this:

    Not the Celtics entering the final two weeks of the regular season still in fifth place in the East, needing to rally past the Pacers – the Victor Oladipo-less Pacers – for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in their playoff series. Not the stagnation if not outright regression of young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

    Not the daily Kyrie Irving drama.

    Maybe we should have foreseen the daily Kyrie Irving drama.

    Here’s what we couldn’t foresee: That Brad Stevens couldn’t just snap his fingers and make it stop. The regression, the stagnation. The drama.

    The mediocrity.

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