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Brad Stevens an effective leader for Celtics through coronavirus pandemic

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Stevens’ staff managed Kemba Walker back to health after concerns, instilled an environment that kept players engaged over four months in quarantine, and has the Celtics looking like a championship contender after eight games.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images

Kemba Walker and Paul Pierce talked in February before an interview required backend production and an app that few had heard of before March. They asked each other questions about their experiences with the Celtics, eventually leading to Pierce’s complicated bond with Doc Rivers and Walker’s first-year experience with Brad Stevens.

“(Brad is) a basketball junkie. He loves basketball, he’s always watching film, he’s always trying to find ways to help us get better,” Walker said. “When I first signed, one of the first things we did was he invited me over to dinner, which really was film. He wanted to watch film ... he asked me some of my favorite plays, so we could incorporate it into the offense. So, I thought that was pretty cool, his X’s-and-O’s game is one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Walker recently admitted they almost never joined forces. When the Knicks’ quest to sign other stars capsized, Walker turned toward Boston, undoubtedly with Gordon Hayward and by extension Stevens in mind. He affirmed the Celtics’ desirability as a free agent destination, becoming the third max contract of the Stevens era.

Stevens inked his own extension with the team last week after Boston nearly reached last year’s win total despite playing ten fewer games, his second miraculous turnaround in seven seasons.

“Last year was really difficult,” he said. “This year has been reinvigorating in a ton of ways to a lot of us.”

Walker helped ensure that commitment by both raising the Celtics’ ceiling and yielding to Stevens, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown without qualms — a rare duality in professional basketball. It’s rare to see a max player take a back seat like that.

This team has looks a lot like the teams from Stevens’ earlier years in terms of chemistry and unselfishness. During that stretch, the Celtics made back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since Larry Bird. Now, through a year-long season with an unprecedented four-month layoff, Stevens’ Celtics squad answered nearly all of its questions through eight seeding games and appear legitimate NBA Finals contenders.

Toronto Raptors Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s a stark contrast to where Boston stood when it welcomed its all-star point guard back from his quarantine in Charlotte with Grant Williams. The Celtics’ medical staff in Boston identified that Walker’s knee continued to hamper him. They held him out of practice. The same injury bug that bit the Celtics in ‘09, ‘10, ‘11, ‘12, ‘13 and ‘18 seemed to strike again.

Stevens had to balance Walker’s knee issues with Tatum‘s early bubble shooting struggles, the team lacking a defensive rhythm, and experimentations with rotations due to a string of injuries holding key players out all season. More importantly, he needed to find a way to effectively involve himself in his team’s desire to affect social change while protests raged outside of the Disney bubble.

He found a way to address all of those concerns from his Gran Destino hotel room. Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Brad Wanamaker returned to form. He kept players like Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams involved despite their struggles earlier in the year and both earned rotation spots Boston needed. In the span of eight games, he tightened the screws on his team’s defense that helped the Celtics score a blowout win over the Raptors. They recovered from an early loss to the Bucks to finish the seeding games 5-3, secure the #3 seed, and gain a favorable path to the ECF.

Meanwhile, Stevens’ usually dormant Twitter feed vouched for the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Stevens had consulted other coaches to find ways to maintain his roster’s focus amidst the turmoil and the team comfortably balanced basketball questions with media sessions strictly dedicated to advocating for justice for Breonna Taylor. Stevens committed to help his players in any way he could.

Former players like Kelly Olynyk liked posts announcing Stevens’ extension on social media.

Stevens’ critics point to how his reputation among NBA coaches lacks a NBA Finals appearance to back it up. This year looks as fitting as any to change that narrative; given Boston’s health, an undermanned 76ers team in Round 1, and no potential Milwaukee or Miami meeting until the East’s final round.

The hype around Boston is a far cry from Gary Washburn’s then-valid concerns that the C’s did not compare visually to Orlando’s top contenders during the scrimmages. Stevens’ ramp-up plan got them where they needed to be in the end, to the point where Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins dubbed the Celtics among the elite of the league. When told about Jenkins’ assessment, in Belichickian form, Stevens responded, “nice.”