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The unspoken key matchup: Brad Stevens vs. Nick Nurse

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Two phenomenal coaches, two top tier teams.

Boston Celtics vs Toronto Raptors Staff Photo By Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Brad Stevens is a tremendous coach. Nick Nurse is a fantastic coach. The former has overseen a rebuild where the team remained competitive, only missing the playoffs once during his tenure. The latter arrived in his position tasked with propelling his team towards an elusive championship and succeeded with his first attempt.

Stevens took a traditional route to coach in the NBA, having played Division III basketball for DePauw University until 1999. He transitioned to coaching in 2001, joining the Butler Bulldogs as an assistant coach. Six years later, Stevens obtained the head coaching position at Butler, leading the team to three Horizon League championships and back-to-back NCAA national championship games. Then the Boston Celtics came calling.

Nurse strayed from the beaten path. Having played for Northern Iowa until 1989, Nurse transitioned to the role of assistant coach of the same team upon graduating. The following year, Nurse took up a position of player-coach for the Derby Rams in the British Basketball League (BBL). Over the next 21 years, the Iowa native had stretches with ten different teams, earning legendary status on the English shores before making the step up to coach in the NBA G-League. Two years later, Nurse became the assistant coach of the Raptors, eventually taking the head coach’s role in the 2018-19 season and winning the NBA championship that same season.

Team GB Kitting Out Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

One of these routes is not better than the other. Both coaches have shown their pedigree since leading their respective teams, earning reputations of being some of the premiere coaches in the league. Stevens is gaining a reputation as both a player development coach and a master tactician. In comparison, the recently crowned Coach Of The Year Nurse has followed up his inaugural season as head coach by beating the odds after the departure of Kawhi Leonard.

Both are defensive-minded coaches. Both preach an offense predicated on ball movement and penetration. Both have an affinity for multi-faceted wings as the focal point of their attack. And both like their teams to control the pace of the game, utilizing their guards as primary scorers (Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry) or defensive leaders (Marcus Smart, Fred VanVleet.)

However, there is one inherent difference between the two. Stevens prefers to go small and has done since his days at Butler, something he spoke to the media about following the Celtics’ second victory against Philadelphia.

“When you’re coaching in a mid-major league, and you’re battling against high major teams, you’re usually not going to win the battle for the best recruits at the bigger positions. So, what we try to do is play smaller and faster. I think obviously size and physicality and all that stuff makes a huge impact. I think you saw that with Enes Kanter’s play tonight, and Grant Williams at the four. But I also think we can be really good when we’re small and speedy. Philly makes it really difficult because of their size. The only difference is when you get to the NBA, people call it small ball, and they’re still huge.”

Nurse prefers to have two legitimate centers on his roster, currently manned by vets Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. But regardless of their basketball principles (in terms of playing small or traditional), the duo has their respective teams operating at incredibly high levels. Since the bubble began, the Raptors and Celtics have occupied the top two defensive rating positions - with Toronto ranking first and Boston sitting second - per Cleaning The Glass.

Neither coach is known for shying away when the pressure is on either. Instead, they are both willing to make the hard calls - just look at how Stevens yanked Daniel Theis after only 30 seconds in Game 4 against the Sixers.

In this upcoming series, one thing is for sure: in a league where victories belong to the players, there isn’t a more critical matchup than what will be taking place on the sidelines. Two fierce competitors, playing a game of high-velocity human chess, with the world watching. The victor is moving on to face the champions-elect, leading Nurse to go back to the drawing board following his teams capitulation in Game 1.

Regardless of the outcome, neither coach should see their stock fall too much around the league. They’re just too talented. However, seeing Stevens out-coach the man who beat him to this year’s top coaching award (just like he did on Sunday) would be satisfying for Celtics fans around the world.