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Brad Stevens: The not-so-secret weapon

The Celtics’ mild-mannered coaching maestro has amplified Boston’s playoff performances over the course of each of the past four springs. In contrast, the postseason will be new territory for Milwaukee Bucks interim coach Joe Prunty.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Down four key rotational players, whom account for a combined 47 percent of the 2017-18 allotted cap space, the Boston Celtics will be notably shorthanded once they begin the postseason against the healthy Milwaukee Bucks. The decision to preliminarily rule Kyrie Irving out for the rest of the playoffs created a convenient narrative. Lowered expectations feel reasonable. Any success is gravy on top of an already beneficial growth season for the young and budding Celtics.

Still, FiveThirtyEight’s CARM-elo Model (no relation to this guy) says that Boston has 73 percent chance to advance to the conference semi-finals, which are better odds than the statistical calculus website is willing to give to the Cavaliers and the Warriors. The actual bookmakers believe that the odds are slimmer, but still favor the Celtics.

One thing is clear: Despite the pronounced injury burden, the nerds and bookmakers (whose advice is always sage) refuse to count the C’s out. Why?

Three words: Bradley Kent Stevens.

Stevens has been a magician for the past seven months, solving every schematic conundrum that the injury bug has thrown at the Celtics roster. Boston won a boatload of close and comeback games, and the fact that seven or eight different players have rotated into the clutch hero role is a testament to Stevens’ unique ability to know which cards to play on a given night. Even at the tensest moments, Stevens seems to have a deep mastery of which amalgamation of Celtics players/skillsets would best exploit the creases in the opposing team’s strategy.

There is no reason to believe that Stevens won’t continue to find innovative ways to maximize the weapons in his arsenal.

Look no further than his playoff track record. Stevens turned the 2017 Bulls series around by inserting Gerald Green’s floor spacing and playmaking into the starting lineup, despite Green only appearing in 47 regular season games. When Isaiah Thomas was shut down in the middle of the Eastern Conference Finals, Stevens overhauled and re-constructed the primary offensive configuration in a matter of days. Losing a 34 percent usage rate and 30 point per game superstar should debilitate a team. Yet, the Celtics would have evened the series headed back to Boston, had it not been for Kyrie Irving’s dazzling 21-point quarter in game 4.

In the postseasons before last, he guided the overachieving 2014-15 team to a pleasantly surprising 7-seed, which parlayed into a 6-game battle against the far more talented Atlanta Hawks in the following year. In short, Boston has faced pervasive playoff adversity in recent years, but Stevens has consistently shepherded them out of the bleakest of circumstances.

Without Irving, Marcus Smart, and Gordon Hayward, Boston doesn’t possess an ideal body of experience, but the Bucks aren’t any more seasoned. Sunday’s opener will mark the first time that Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, and Khris Middleton have ever played together in a playoff game. Will Eric Bledsoe, who last reached these waters as Chris Paul’s backup in 2013, excel in high-pressure scenarios as Milwaukee’s tone-setter? Sophomores Thon Maker and Malcolm Brogdon dipped their feet into waters last postseason, but remain far from battle tested.

That said, Milwaukee’s most vulnerable newcomer won’t check into a single minute of game action. Bucks interim head coach Joe Prunty has led admirably in his 37 games since Jason Kidd was sent to the unemployment line. Prunty, a 15-year NBA assistant, rose the Bucks’ net rating from 17th to 13th. He won two NBA championships on Gregg Popovich’s staff in the early early 2000s, and made deep playoff runs as an assistant with Dallas and Portland.

Still, this will be Prunty’s debut postseason as head honcho, and having only a few brief months to install his structure puts him at a massive disadvantage.

The most difficult part of system building is developing unconditional trust between the coaching staff and the players. Now in their fourth postseason under Stevens’ leadership, the Celtics have clearly fully bought into his system. The 41-year-old coach organizes his players like chess board, with each piece willing to prioritize the team over themselves. Does anyone remember a public complaint coming from a Celtics player about his role or the team’s direction? Consider how easy it is to come up with an example for other teams.

Prunty is a temporary ad-hoc coach, and barring an unanticipated playoff push, he will likely yield his duties a splashier candidate who will try to calibrate how to harness Milwaukee’s insane length and athleticism. While the Bucks aren’t disjointed like the Wizards currently are, Prunty’s “interim” status cannot be a reassuring factor in the back of Giannis and Co.’s heads. He will have to prove that he isn’t in over his head.

In a 7-game series format, strategy can be micromanaged down to the smallest minutia. Extra days off between games, paired with the benefit of having fresh game film, allow coaches to magnify their attention to detail. They are dialed into attacking the opposing team’s weaknesses, while trying to best conceal their own, a balance that Stevens has masterfully grasped.

After a few games, the Celtics and Bucks will have memorized each other’s basic play sets and offensive strategies. That means that the time between and during games for coaches to absorb information becomes exponentially more important. Implementing various between-game adjustments keeps opponents honest, and forces defenses to work more arduously. That can make an enormous difference over time. In playoff games, Stevens has a distinct record of maximizing the utility of timeouts and half-time adjustments. All of these factors suggest Stevens will have a great opportunity to call upon his ingenuity and skills that he displayed during the October-March slate.

As currently constructed, Milwaukee’s roster is arguably more talented than Boston’s. Antetokounmpo is unquestionably the biggest star in this series, while Middleton and Bledsoe are more polished offensive products than anyone that the Celtics boast. However, playoff games are frequently determined by which team augments their talent in the most efficient manner. In that sense, Boston has had the clear edge over Milwaukee all season. Whether they will translate it to this postseason remains unknown, but history suggests that you can confidently bet on Brad Stevens.