Brad Stevens started one of the most consequential nights of this soon-to-be 11 month season with a challenge. Talking to Sean Grande for his regular pre-game radio interview, he quipped that the Celtics shouldn’t have watched film between Games 1 and 2.
“They did some actions and they did some stuff that we’ve got to be better against, but the transition stuff and all those things. How many months are we into this season? 11.5 months?” he said. “You’re not saying run back and get matched. We have a saying here that transition supersedes matchups. You sprint back and you cover the threats first. You get the basket, stop the ball and then you match the great shooters. We didn’t do any of the three well.”
The Celtics responded in the first half on Thursday, building a lead as large as 17 with rotations, like Daniel Theis’ corner closeout of Jimmy Butler before halftime, among the best all year. They matched their Game 1 total for points in the paint in the second quarter, then in roughly one minute before halftime their largest lead dwindled to 13.
Critics pointed to the Miami zone as the breaking point in what became a 37-17 collapse into the third. They wondered how the Celtics couldn’t exploit a “high school defense,” though the Celtics still worked 0.96 points per possession. Both Stevens and Erik Spoelstra said that the game swung on factors outside of scheme. That doesn’t absolve Stevens from questioning. It does shine a significant light on the fickle notion of chemistry. Stevens does the job his way. It worked all year, including during a near-collapse against the Raptors. In one explosive night, he got tuned out.
Enes Kanter denied reports Shams expanded on Friday morning. The Celtics apparently chided Marcus Smart for his play late in the game, throwing away two passes during a 20-turnover meltdown. Smart reportedly badgered assistants throughout the game and his loud exploits finally got challenged by Jaylen Brown. The two eventually separated, as reporters saw Smart storm out after hearing items thrown. “Team is imploding,” Washburn wrote. Only Duncan Robinson received a question on the Heat side about what happened across the hall.
“We definitely have some direct, forceful conversation,” he said of Miami’s own confrontation at halftime. “It wasn’t necessarily emotional, as in bad. Obviously, you’re in a battle like this, winning comes with emotion. We really just try to be direct as possible, us amongst players and then obviously Spo’ to us about what we needed to adjust.”
No news of implosion. The Heat’s staff told the players they didn’t show enough effort, they fixed it, then ran their explosive pick-and-rolls to Bam Adebayo. They ate up Boston’s seven turnovers to build an unbridgeable shot advantage. They addressed each other’s concerns — and it didn’t take a Spoelstra red-faced explosion.
While Pat Riley has played an instrumental role in vetting his players to develop Heat culture, Miami’s head coach who came up in the video room isn’t testing the team via rants. He handles the schemes and the players police themselves, his pressers nearly identical in demeanor to Brad’s.
On a team that’s built to work on a string on both ends of the court, Boston is suffering from a lack of togetherness. When ball security, their expertise all year, along with transition defense (they ranked No. 1) and spacing all became concerns, something deeper than any scheme is wrong.
“A lot of times we weren’t in the right spots,” Tatum said. “Whether against man or zone, that’s not going to help us. We got to have right spacing in order to create good movement, create a good shot. If spacing’s messed up against a good team, a good defensive team, it’s tough.”
Inserting Kanter worked for Stevens (to a point). He posted-up Miami’s wings successfully. Romeo Langford set up Walker for an off-ball three that helped start his big night, before falling injured after roughly 80 seconds. With Walker struggling for five straight games, Stevens stretched positive minutes from Brad Wanamaker. The Celtics couldn’t organize themselves and execute what Stevens knew they knew. We see it in multiple players calling out different commands within the offense.
He challenged them again in a short on-court interview. “We stopped playing on both ends. We didn’t cut at all, we didn’t pass at all, we didn’t play at all.”
Jeff Van Gundy heard it. He called the reaction Stevens’ version of seething, so for those awaiting the screaming, it’s already here. We can only imagine the turmoil that ensued 12 minutes later, some invoking a medicine ball, while others closer to the scene overheard Stevens trying to quell the noise. At the highest temperature, it took until 1 a.m. to sit down and talk amongst his stars calmly. No practice on Friday cemented what Stevens said openly, this isn’t an Xs-and-Os situation. If it was, Stevens would surely have a plan.
There’s no perfect personality to manage a playoff crisis. Doc Rivers, the opposite of Stevens on the intense, speech-giving scale, just watched hs team melt down for the third 3-1 collapse of his career out west. Especially in this environment, extenuating circumstances likely hover around the team. Stevens made it clear that it’s his priority to listen as an ally in the league’s search for social justice. Then there’s practice time, games every other day and whatever’s left goes to film. They’re 73 days into this now and Stevens, unlike the players, can’t have his family in the bubble. He said upon arrival how important it is to have each other. That’s all the Celtics have now.
Stevens tried to mend fences, challenge and nitpick the fine points until he realized his group understands. Now comes accountability, like Daniel Theis admitting it’s time to stop badgering referees instead of getting back in transition. Brown, however, spoke of discussions about touches after Game 1, something that needs to be sorted out among the players if it’s an underlying problem, because directing shot totals isn’t beating a zone.
Smart, for his part, should stay aggressive. He passed up shots in the middle of the zone late on Thursday, another thing Stevens can’t fix in real time. The 22-seconds to end regulation Game 1 showed there’s blame on the sideline too, but finger pointing on the court won’t get this team anywhere. His blow-up sends its own message.
The Celtics know how to beat a zone. Stevens knows how to beat a zone. He beat one of the best with Butler 10 years ago. Managing professional egos, each with their own brand, family and idea about the best way to do things amid a deficit was less of a job back then. It’s the hardest for any NBA coach to handle especially since, after 11 months of it being no problem, it can erupt out of three critical days gone wrong.
“We’ll go back and look at it,” Stevens said. “And figure out if it was a technical thing, a pace thing, an execution thing, or a not as focused on the important stuff thing ... this isn’t about zones and offenses and defenses and stuff like that. This is we just got to be better.”