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Brad Stevens reflects on Joe Mazzulla’s success and Jaylen Brown’s All-NBA case

Brad Stevens called Joe Mazzulla a strength for the Celtics entering the postseason as he reflected on his, Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams and Jayson Tatum’s seasons on Sunday.

NBA: Playoffs-Miami Heat at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON — Brad Stevens called a press conference on Sunday before the Celtics’ season finale against the Hawks in an unusual move, saying it’s because he will not speak once the playoffs begin. He wants the focus on the players, team and Joe Mazzulla.

With Boston’s seed, possible opponents and career seasons set in stone for the team’s stars, Stevens praised the improvement Mazzulla achieved in his first year as head coach. Stevens also stumped for Jaylen Brown — who the Celtics expect back at practice later this week after cutting his right hand on glass — and Jayson Tatum to make the All-NBA team.

“We talk every day but I want to go back to this: Joe’s a strength,” Stevens said. “He’s done a really good job and I understand, because he’s new, that the easiest thing to do is nitpick him, but he’s done a really good job. If he needs me, I’m here, but I trust him and I trust our staff. They’ve all done a good job and I think our players would all second that.”

Stevens — who backed Mazzulla as the best choice for the interim job after Ime Udoka’s suspension in September — knew he would perform well despite difficult circumstances. The Celtics’ president credited that to Mazzulla’s ability to react consistently to wins and losses. His controversial approach to focus on process, even after tough losses, played well.

Mazzulla defended he and the team’s performance on Friday, denying the notion they had ups-and-downs despite slip-ups against teams like Houston, Orlando and Washington in the second half of the season. The Celtics still secured the No. 2 seed, and Mazzulla emphasized their No. 1 play on offense and defense over the team’s final 16 games.

Stevens admitted four losses in seven games after the all-star break to New York, Cleveland an a 28-point collapse against Brooklyn providing a test the Celtics passed. He also credited the character of the locker room, especially veterans who took smaller roles, to get past mid-season complacency.

He saw Mazzulla evolve through that midway point of the season, finding a greater balance between calling timeouts and letting the team play. It can take years to feel out what your team needs, he said, and Stevens saw him figure it out, stopping the game to make substitutions, and not doing so to keep other players waiting on the opposing bench.

“(Mazzulla) comes back and he works the next day,” Stevens said. “He wants to improve. He demands that of the team. I think he does a good job of picking what the emphasis needs to be in the big picture, and also in those small moments, the snippets of times when something is waning a little, he does a good job of figuring that out and making that a priority to improve. Obviously, every team has its ups-and-downs, but if you watched us in the last two weeks, and the vast majority of our play, I think we’ve gotten better and that’s encouraging, because we struggled out of the gate after the all-star break and we could’ve limped (into the playoffs).”

That success and consistency built across 26 starting lineups, while Marcus Smart, Brown, Tatum and Malcolm Brogdon managed their minutes to close the season. Al Horford and Robert Williams III sat back-to-backs all year, and Stevens thought the Celtics struck the right balance between finding big-minute games to prepare players for postseason intensity while getting the roster to the finish line healthy. Boston closed the season winning 5-of-6, and nearly made it six straight with their undermanned effort against Philadelphia.

Williams III’s progress since returning from September knee surgery impressed both Mazzulla and Stevens. While Mazzulla moved Williams III back to the bench after a recent hamstring surgery, he asked the big man for more in terms of attacking cross-matches, taking a dribble and looking to score around the rim on Friday. The Celtics will likely ask him to make the most of 5-6 minute bursts each quarter in the postseason, but arguably his best game of the season on Friday against Toronto provided hope he can give something more.

“Missing a bunch of games at the start of the year was not been ideal,” Stevens said. “It did force us to morph into a team that can do other things and give us a different way of playing, so there was some advantage to that, and then he’s come back and played well, and I’m really encouraged that he played the minutes he played over the last couple of games.”

Stevens also revealed Tatum battled nagging injuries that cost him his load management games, among them his sore left wrist and hip contusion, along with an illness that kept him out of the team’s first game at Milwaukee. Tatum still became the first 30 point per game scorer in Celtics history.

Stevens finished making his case for Brown’s postseason award, who earns the ability to sign a super max extension this offseason if he makes an All-NBA team. He thought Brown only improved from a strong starting point to begin the year.

“He has really played his best basketball in the last couple of months and he was an obvious all-star right out of the gate,” he said. “I think he’s doing a great job of, obviously scoring the ball and scoring when we need it, but we ask him to do a lot defensively, and we ask him, along with Jayson, to read a lot of pretty intense coverages with extra bodies flying at him, with extra bodies shifted over to him. We’re unique, because we have those two guys, amazing, young players, and they really accentuate our role players, and then we have a group of role players who really accentuate them. They deserve to be on that team.”

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