ESPN cut to one of their typical in-game coaching interviews in the midst of of the Celtics’ scorching comeback win over the Washington Wizards. The topic was Isaiah Thomas, who was cutting through screens and drilling shots in tight space on the way to a 33-point, nine assist performance and 1-0 series lead, 123-111.
All of this was one day after he flew to Washington and then back to Boston in the early morning hours Sunday. He had spoken at his sister’s funeral, rushed back to Boston to play and immediately watched his front tooth pop from his gums and drop to the floor after colliding with Otto Porter’s elbow.
Neither event, however incomparable, could keep him off the court. He grabbed his incisor off the floor, handed it to a trainer on the sideline and followed it up with two three-pointers.
Asked about this piling adversity, Stevens simply uttered, “I wish I had that kind of character.”
Stevens’s Celts may not have entered the playoffs with the typical expectations of a one-seed, some even calling them the worst team ever to attain that feat. The only expectation was to reach the second round after two prior attempts fell short. That on-court goal was overshadowed by reality when Chyna Thomas passed away in a single-car accident on April 15, right on the eve of the first round.
So basketball narratives were replaced by something far more important, helping Thomas deal with his horrific circumstances.
It was a nearly impossible situation to handle as a professional basketball coach, but Stevens put sports aside and focused on real life. He put no pressure on Thomas to play in the opening game of the playoffs, in game two, or even following the funeral Sunday. Whatever Thomas needed, he was willing to grant, regardless of the high stakes of the postseason.
Prior to Thomas’s tragedy, the Celts were already a tight-knit team drawn together by many of its players being snubbed in other situations. It’s something Stevens has fostered amazingly, there’s a night-in, night-out focus on this squad that’s nearly unmatched across the league.
His showering of praise and compassion upon Thomas at every turn has been heartwarming to witness, but more important has been the response of the team.
One of the foremost concerns entering the playoffs for Boston was their reliance on Thomas. The team’s offensive production would dip substantially when he and his 122 offensive rating stepped off the floor. Even in his presence, there were often scenarios where his four teammates would be caught watching and waiting for him to make his move.
There was an enormous load on Thomas’s shoulders on the court heightened by the emotion of the accident, then by an 0-2 deficit at the hands of the eight-seed. The pressure was increasing, prompting a Stevens adjustment that nobody saw coming to alleviate it.
Gerald Green, last a Celts starter 10 years ago, was going to replace starting center Amir Johnson at game three’s tip.
It seemed unfathomable before the cloudiness behind the reasoning gave way to immediate results: 41% three-point shooting, the athleticism on the wing to crash the boards from the perimeter and another overall outlet to whom Thomas can pass.
With shooters across the lineup at his disposal, Thomas only scored 16 points in game three, but he had nine assists. They won.
The Celts haven’t lost since, and every step of the way Stevens has been able to get more out of everybody not named Thomas. Through the increased production of Al Horford, Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and even Kelly Olynyk, the pressure on Thomas has been lightened.
Asked about where he’s getting all his strength and energy from with so much going on, Thomas said all he can do is feed off the encouragement of the players around him.
That’s where Stevens has made the difference. The perception for so long was that the Celts would have to adapt to a playoff rotation. Six, seven, maybe eight players appearing in a game and no more. Eleven Celtics players checked into the game Sunday.
With the array of talents on his bench, he’s mixed and matched skill sets in ways his opponents have been unable to do. It’s also had a visible effect on the effectiveness of the bench. When Green was pulled from his light-hearted role sipping hot chocolate on the bench into a pivotal starting small forward in the playoffs, it sent a strong message that anybody could be called on at any time.
Jaylen Brown, who was relegated to the bench for the brunt of the first-round series, played key minutes down the stretch. As Washington charged back early in the fourth quarter behind the relentless marksmanship of Bojan Bogdanovic, Terry Rozier got the pull, and off the bench came Brown who had played just 5.9 minutes per game vs. Chicago.
He trusted the rookie in crunch time, and so did Thomas. As he pulled in the defense on a left-handed drive, he swung a swift pass to Brown in the corner seconds into his shift. Brown drilled the three.
Next possession Brown got the ball on the right wing, powered to the hoop, set himself, and heaved a kick-out to the opposite wing where Crowder hit a three of his own. That sequence halted the Wizards’ run and ultimately won the game—all initiated by a player who, in most situations, wouldn’t have expected to play at all.
He also proactively pulled Green from the game as the Wiz were tearing through them at will and Marcin Gortat was doing his best Robin Lopez impression. Gortat had 10 rebounds in the first half and was held to just three in the second. The Celts quickly got away from Johnson as well, in favor of Kelly Olynyk’s unexpectedly ferocious post-ups and Terry Rozier’s high-leaping boards.
It’s vintage Stevens—hitting all the right buttons, and more importantly facilitating a culture where every player in fixated on the goal, whether it’s on the court or related to real-life adversity.
There’s always debate over the concepts of hustle, clutch, focus and the overall mental aspects of sports. In an adverse situation like the one the Cs have faced, the intangibles absolutely affect what goes on during play.
Thomas even said it after game one when asked about how his team has been resilient to all they’ve gone through. He admitted they’ve felt the intangibles working in Boston’s favor.
Stevens has channeled all that emotion, angst, and added motivation into five more playoff wins on his record—which isn’t the worst in NBA history anymore.