The Celtics locker room features a sign that lists everything Boston must do. It includes four or five bullet points on what to expect from the team every night, save for a few clunkers: stopping pick-and-roll action, finishing defensive possessions, protecting the ball, pacing-and-spacing, and making winning plays.
Stevens listed them again early this season as priorities, particularly for the young players looking to earn minutes and succeed early with the Celtics — who would inevitably need its youth to step up through injuries and COVID-19. He defined roles for each individual to end training camp, and pressed players to focus on what they do best in more minutes instead of trying to do more overall.
Unfortunately, those Stevens mantras have rarely appeared this season. Boston’s ranks — pace (21st), defensive rating (16th), passing (23rd in assists/game), inside-out shot charts (12th in eFG%), doing more with less talent (28th in bench points), not turning the ball over (18th) — lag behind most of Stevens’ other Celtics teams. Even franchise values that precede Stevens’ tenure, like protecting the three-point line (21st), have diminished. It is as much an indictment of the team and Danny Ainge as it is Stevens himself, but in a season where he’s faced more heat than any in his NBA career, the benefits of him being coach have appeared less pronounced.
“It’s not necessarily any one group, not any one person, we just all have to be better as a team,” Stevens told 98.5 The Sports Hub in March. “I’ve got to help put us in better positions to do that ... after those close losses, I would hope nobody is harder on me than me and I deserved it.”
Speculation emerged that Stevens would return to college amid scrutiny earlier this season that reached a level where Wyc Grousbeck and Ainge appeared in numerous radio interviews to affirm Stevens’ job security. The Celtics extended Stevens’ contract for six seasons in the summer, and he is seemingly here to stay regardless of how the season ends. That is an admirable approach amid a pandemic, but if the players aren’t responding to his message anymore, it could prove moot. Boston’s worst nights this year — and there have been a few rock bottoms — have called into question how dedicated this team is to how Stevens wants to play.
“There are some (turnovers) that are a function of just getting better playing against extra attention,” Stevens pleaded to his team after another loss to the Nets where Boston turned it over 21 times. “We have to be more possession-oriented than we are.”
Jayson Tatum, in a moment that may come to define this year, responded early in a crucial game against Charlotte to that call by Stevens to value possessions by tossing the ball effortlessly toward Kemba Walker in the back court. He didn’t notice Terry Rozier storming up the floor to easily pick the looping pass off and score, one of 13 more giveaways for Boston in a 125-104 loss.
The difficulties for Stevens began when Gordon Hayward departed and Ainge handed him more big men and fewer wings, before ailments and trades moved starters in and out of the lineup 30 different times. Stevens characteristically experimented with 17 different starters, staggering players like Evan Fournier, Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams III into bench units before eventually naming each starters at certain points.
“I’m trying to make sure we get our most impactful players on the floor,” Stevens said in February about this group’s play style. “That’s why we play big a lot. The big lineup wasn’t always necessarily good early. But our results were pretty good early. So the ability to rotate effectively the rest of the game, mix in playing big, playing small and then as we got more comfortable playing big, the results as far as those minutes and how those have been offensively and defensively have improved.”
The team returned to wing-heavy units when Ainge traded Daniel Theis, elevating Semi Ojeleye and Romeo Langford to starts against the Nets one week ago. Then they went to the bench against the Hornets the following game. Ojeleye returned with the starters when Kemba Walker sat on Tuesday against the Thunder, playing only eight minutes before Pritchard gained favor on his way to 28 points. Aaron Nesmith, Grant Williams and Jabari Parker all received chances on the perimeter through the course of that loss.
An active start by Parker to his Celtics career — 25 points in his first five games — fell into fewer minutes then three straight DNPs through the weekend. Nesmith, nearly invisible since late February, had his three strongest games of the season last week after grabbing eight rebounds in the loss to Brooklyn on Friday. He scored 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting as an integral part of the Celtics historic comeback against the Spurs. With seven games to go, it’s unclear if the team will roll with Nesmith’s flash in the pan or keep trying different players to match up. That luxury won’t exist in a playoff series — or play-in game — when every minute and rotation could swing a game.
The team’s younger players have entered games on a matchup basis despite not appearing to be proven specialists. It’s a hard task; few bench players aside from Pritchard and Williams III have shown any consistency this year, but that did not turn into a starting role for the latter until the team traded Theis and Tristan Thompson contracted COVID. When Marcus Smart got ejected on Sunday, Langford entered over Nesmith, then he and Tatum immediately miscommunicated a key switch to allow a Carmelo Anthony dagger.
Pace is a harder problem to understand. The Celtics rarely run, with no example more glaring than when Brooklyn built a 32-3 fast break advantage in its final win over Boston. The Celts rank second in transition points per possession (1.18), but their frequency of using transition (13.8%) ranks 22nd in the NBA. Jaylen Brown is Stevens’ best fast break player ever, yet Stevens’ teams peaked at fifth and fourth in possessions per game in 2015 and 2016 before Brown arrived. The only Stevens team that rivals this one’s grinding approach was the injury-plagued 2017-18 group.
“I think we want to play fast,” Payton Pritchard said on Tuesday. “It’s just a mindset. It’s something we’re going to keep working on and continue to do, but I think we’re very capable of playing that way. Our focus just needs to be on the defensive end.”
That defensive intensity has swayed throughout the season, and you need to get stops to run. Smart, Brown and Tatum regressed in defensive metrics this year, likely due to larger offensive roles and playmaking burdens with Kemba Walker sporadically available. They’ve allowed 117 to Cleveland, 38 points to Danillo Gallinari, 125 to a battered Charlotte group and Portland lit them up all game Sunday. Other times, they’ve stiffed the Suns and held the Nuggets to 87 while shutting down Nikola Jokic, but those defensive highlights have proven to be the exception. Boston’s starters all maintain defensive ratings higher than 116 since the Nets loss.
If fatigue plays into that, the Celtics struggle to sneak Tatum rest and Brown constantly played through pain until he seemingly aggravated his ankle injury late against Portland. Few games have featured enough separation to sit them early. A recent 27-point lead against the Lakers resulted in a meltdown by Tremont Waters and Moe Wagner so severe that the Jays had to funnel them back into the game to secure the win. Thompson, expected to be an anchor and leader on that end of the floor, has instead stressed the unimportance of these regular season games as Boston tries avoid the play-in tournament.
“Winning games in the regular season, to me, they matter. But I really think it’s a bunch of horses***,” Thompson said to begin April. “My final good year in Cleveland, we finished fourth. And we kind of did it on purpose, because we kind of wanted to stay fresh. So, I mean, being a top-four seed, being the three seed, being the one – let’s be real. Probably three out of the four years we made the Finals, we were never the No. 1 seed.”
Stevens said the opposite, skirting rest due to the unavailability of other players, but also the close standings. They’re not good enough to rest the stars and the team constantly monitors how they feel, he said, but Brown and Tatum have appeared exhausted at times.
Tatum finally sat on Tuesday, after Stevens acknowledged the need to get him a break. With Walker also out, it resulted in the worst loss of the season to a Thunder team that had lost 14 straight. Now, with Tatum having played the 15th most minutes in the league amid his COVID recovery, the Celtics sit in the east’s seventh seed as a play-in tournament team if the playoffs started today.
If that dilemma proved a difficult and perhaps unprecedented one to navigate, getting Boston to move the ball has never been an issue until this season. The Celtics rank 26th in assist percentage, unimaginable after ranking in the top-5 in 2016 and 2017. It is a worst for the Stevens era, after declining to 20th last season. Stevens tried various adjustments to increase cutting, and the Parker signing seemed to answer some of the stagnancy issues. Williams, Nesmith, Ojeleye, Langford and others typically appear relegated to the corner, playing in roles where 1-3 catch-and-shoot threes decide whether they have a good or bad game.
“Guys that really move the ball or guys that really run the spots and really execute hard have probably got to be the priority, playing-wise, for now around our very best players,” Stevens said in February. “And I think that that’s where we’re gonna have to get to because that’s clearly an issue.”
Boston ranks 17th in assist percentage since March began, an improvement they’ve seen in these various areas as Stevens gets more information and formulates a playoff rotation he said last week is all but completed in his mind. Health is necessary to accomplish that, but the Celtics seem unable to win in spite of the ailments that they’ll inevitably continue to face into the playoffs. The Celtics haven’t had their full roster once this year. That doesn’t excuse the moments where Stevens’ group seems to play counter to how he wants them to.
He challenged the team’s ability to respond to adversity at their worst this year. On Sunday, he stared at his former teams on the other side. Beyond the fact that Terry Rozier led the blowout of his former Celtics, Stevens watched Charlotte push the ball, whip it around the half court and record 39 assists — among the most by any team since the 1990’s. Boston did not do the same, and defensively Stevens left a stinging assessment:
“I thought we were guarding them like we were expecting to play ourselves, like we were going to hold it for an extra dribble.”
The coaches challenge, an admitted thorn in Stevens’ side, added a new layer of interaction with his team where players expect Stevens to have their back when they grow frustrated with officiating. Stevens receives one challenge per game, and needs to weigh giving his team a jolt vs. saving it for crucial situations and assessing how likely it is that the officials will over turn the call on the floor. He emphasized that to the team, showing clips of emotional reactions by football players trying to get their coach to utilize the challenge.
That happened anyways at points this year, including the recent win over the Timberwolves where Stevens used a second quarter challenge on a Walker shooting foul on Anthony Edwards after Kemba grew so frustrated that he picked up a technical foul. The Celtics lost the challenge, so Stevens later could only motion to an official how Grant Williams boxed out on a fourth quarter loose ball foul call. Yet the affirmation of Walker’s frustration seemed to fire up Boston into a run toward halftime in a game they eventually won.
It has proven to be a delicate balance on a team at times obsessed with officiating. Stevens found himself, again, without a late challenge on a play where Tatum seemingly could’ve reached 61 points and a four-point lead to end overtime against the Spurs because he unsuccessfully challenged a second quarter Grant shooting foul.
“We do talk to our players about you can say whatever you want, but we’re only going to use it if we think we’re going to win it or it’s the right time in the game to use it,” Stevens said in April. “We said at the start of the year, I know you can look at me and twirl your hand and all that stuff, I’m not going to be pressured into using it by somebody.”
Stevens wants this team to play like the Utah Jazz do and Tatum’s isolation-reliant style instead resembles James Harden’s Houston teams at times. If you believe ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, he had the chance to escape it all, end his deal cleanly with the Celtics and have an excuse to do it in his dream job opening with the Indiana Hoosiers.
If he had given up on this group, it could be over, but even if the Celtics have occasionally given up on him like The Globe’s Gary Washburn saw early this season, Stevens is sticking it out trying to earn that trust back through perseverance.
“I wasn’t going to leave,” Stevens said. “This place ... has been so good to our family, so good to me. And we owe them, especially in the middle of a very trying season that is, right in the middle of a pandemic, we owe them to stay the course. I don’t know how long I’m going to coach. I don’t know how long I’m going to coach in the NBA. I don’t know how long they’ll want me to coach in the NBA. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. Maybe I’ll figure out something new, but right now I am thrilled to be the Celtics head coach.”