The moment we all got a glimpse of Gordon Hayward’s ankle injury, the feelings of shock and sorrow for him and his family dominated the tone of Boston’s regular season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Basketball was secondary, and the rest of that game went by like a blur.
Once the dust settled, and the Celtics were aware of how serious the injury was, the question had to be asked. “Now what?”
Losing an All-Star caliber player like Hayward so early in the season is as tough a blow any team could possibly endure. Fortunately for Boston, their head coach is well-equipped to handle a difficult situation like this on the fly. Even if Brad Stevens doesn’t have any experience dealing with one of his best players missing the season, his approach and basketball pedigree give the Celtics a lot of subtle advantages that will help keep them towards the top of the eastern conference.
Stevens is widely regarded as a basketball genius. His excellence with X’s and O’s has played a large part in attracting marquee players like Hayward, Kyrie Irving, and Horford to Boston, and fosters trust with the organization in his ability to handle adverse situations. Stevens’ offensive sets involve a lot of player movement, handoffs, and misdirection. The system is so difficult to plan for, that it prompted Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue to say that the Celtics were, “Harder to guard than the Warriors.” This was after Boston lost their leading scorer Isaiah Thomas for the remainder of the playoffs as well.
Defensively, Stevens has a lot of talented players on that end of the floor, and is able to put those players in match ups that cater to their strengths. Even if some of his players aren’t strong defenders, Stevens finds ways to keep opposing teams from getting easy baskets.
Wednesday night against MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetekounmpo, Stevens had Al Horford give the Greek Freak some space to shoot while having a help defender nearby ready to swarm him when he drove to the basket. When Horford wasn’t tasked with stopping Antetekounmpo, Stevens deployed Semi Ojeleye to check one of the best players in the league.
There are six rookies on Boston’s roster, along 21-year-old Jaylen Brown, Smart, and Terry Rozier, who are both 23. In a normal situation, a team with that much youth in their rotation would probably give up their hopes of the postseason after losing a player like Hayward for the year. Stevens has an innate ability in putting his players in a position to succeed, which will give the young players on the roster an easier time getting acclimated to an increased role.
In this case, Stevens knew what Ojeleye’s strengths were, and gave the rookie second round pick a chance to thrive in a matchup that nobody expected him to succeed in. Ojeleye defended Antetokounmpo differently than Horford. He got into his air space more since he has the lateral quickness to stay in front of Antetokounmpo’s drives. This disrupted the Bucks rhythm down the stretch, and ultimately allowed Irving and Horford to close things down for good.
As good a strategist Stevens is, he is equally if not more effective at generating a positive culture in the locker room. In the face of adversity, Stevens doesn’t try to manufacture artificial inspiration. Instead there is a developed respect between coaches and players, but also amongst the players themselves where they can just focus on basketball for each other.
"Individually, I think Brad just stands out in his own way," Irving said. "He's an intellectual coach, he's an understanding coach, in terms of his knowledge of the game and what he wants from his players and how to best get the most out of his players on a day-to-day basis.” -Kyrie Irving
Maximizing your player’s talent is probably the best attribute a coach can have, and each Celtics squad that Stevens has coached over-achieved in some way or another. This very well could have given Boston’s front office more confidence in making moves that upgraded talent at the expense of continuity.
Stevens has faced a number of difficult situations since he took over as Boston’s head coach in 2013. He dealt with each of them in an admirable way with little experience, and that’s due to his approach in staying focused on the right things. Hayward’s injury can be seen as a step back in the Celtics’ quest for their 18th championship, but they can feel confident that Stevens will keep the team headed in the right direction.