HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — The playoff berth, the turnaround, the return to relevance, if you will, sans a superstar after the end of the Big 3 era.
It wasn’t supposed to happen overnight for the Boston Celtics.
Danny Ainge‘s current rebuilding project is the model for doing it without the saving grace of a marquee superstar. And that’s fine by Brad Stevens, the coach Ainge plucked from the college ranks to guide these surprising Celtics through this process.
Ainge sold Stevens on a long-term vision, signing him to a six-year deal in 2013 that made him the youngest coach (36) in the NBA at the time, that included a transformation of the culture for the winningest franchise in league history. The days of leaning on future Hall of Famers like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to lead the way was over.
And in the early stages of the third year of this new era, the Celtics appear ready for prime time. They face off against the Atlanta Hawks tonight (8 ET, TNT), the first of seven national TV games they’ll play this season after just one last year.
Their 20-9 finish last season led to that playoff berth, where they went after LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in a first-round sweep and served notice that planning for the future didn’t necessarily mean drowning in the misery of the typical rebuilding plan.
Winners of six of their last nine games, the Celtics have shaken off a 1-3 start and gotten back to the ways that led them to the playoffs last season.
Built on a bedrock of defense, depth, player development and shared sacrifice, the Celtics are on to something. With a starting lineup that includes three second-round picks and roster dotted with as many journeymen as high draft picks, Stevens has molded this group into one of the scrappiest crews in the league. And to a man, they point to their young coach and his measured ways as the key to their success.
“His approach is everything, he’s always prepared no matter what the situation, be it in games or practice and that says a lot about a coach in this league” said Isaiah Thomas, the veteran guard who leads the Celtics in scoring (21.6) and assists (6.5). “You never know if he’s happy or mad because he’s so even-keeled. He won’t show it. And that’s how this team is. He’s always talking about looking to the next play. He’s instilled that in us and it’s really defined us as a group. We’re a next play team, no matter what the situation.”
In an environment where basically half of the league is rebuilding perpetually, Stevens has made sure to avoid discussing anything of the sort with his team. Why bother with the obvious, when just talking about it won’t speed up the process?
“We’ve never once talked about it as rebuilding,” Stevens said. “We’ve talked about it as building, growing and improving. We’ve got a lot of young guys. We’re still super young. And we have to take every opportunity as a learning experience. We have to say, there aren’t any excuses in being young and not having that extra experience. That means we have to watch more film, we’ve got to put more time in the gym, we’ve got to shoot more on our own and we’ve to be better to catch up.”
David Lee, 32, is the only player on the roster over the age of 28. He’s also the only former All-Star and he arrived via trade after winning a title with the Golden State Warriors last season. But he doesn’t hold a position above or beyond any of his teammates based on that body of work.
That’s not the way this group works.
“Young and hungry, that’s us,” said fourth-year center Jared Sullinger, the Celtics’ leading rebounder (8.8). “We’ve got a lot of guys who are still trying to establish themselves throughout the league. And we play as a team. On any given night it could be someone’s time to shine and we’re so unselfish. We feed off of that.”
Buying into the system was easy, Sullinger said, because of the collective understanding that none of this would be possible without the entire group diving in. Roles change on the fly, a starter one week could be a key reserve the next. Stevens has fostered an ego-free environment and instead mandated that guys serve the greater good and emphasize the team over all else.
It’s the backbone of any successful team, but particularly in today’s NBA, where the universal embrace of the pace-and-space style has changed the landscape. Stevens pointed to the Hawks and the way they busted out last season, winning a franchise-record 60 wins and earning a trip to the Eastern Conference finals, as the prime example of a team whose success shined a light on what the Celtics are trying to create.
“Offensively, they are who they are. They are outstanding moving the ball,” Stevens said of the Hawks. “They are very intelligent. Their team savvy is off the charts. They are just really organized but still play with a lot of freedom. And they are just fun to watch … I thought it was just awesome last year they got four All-Stars because it talked about what was most important, and that’s the team winning, and all of those guys were playing great off of each other.”
The Celtics might not have four All-Star ready talents just now, but the players are convinced that the foundation and the culture for that kind of success in the future is in the works.
“I always say guys don’t play with each other, they play for each other,” Thomas said. “And on this team, it feels like a college team, for the most part. Guys aren’t running around with big egos, everybody just wants to see each other succeed. And that’s hard to find in the NBA. I think we’ve got a great group of guys and it starts with our coaching staff. Everybody has an equal opportunity to be themselves. And that’s what works for us.”