Nothing seems to deter or hinder Brad Stevens.
That star power is progressively evaporating. And yet, Stevens is putting together another masterful season — his most impressive yet.
In the first five minutes of the season, Hayward suffered an ankle injury that has been etched into the minds of NBA fans and his teammates.
The season was over. Better luck next year. And yet, the Celtics are now 50-23 with the second spot in the Eastern Conference. LeBron’s Cavaliers are surging. The Raptors look dangerous. But the Celtics aren’t out of the mix to represent the East in the NBA Finals.
Horford has been an efficient and well-rounded player. He may be an outstanding defensive piece. He may be the glue guy on offense. But he’s attempting his fewest field goals per game and scoring his fewest points per game since 2011-12 when he played just 11 games. Horford has jumped to 12th in defensive win shares in 2018-19, but has been quieter than ever offensively. Perhaps this is all according to Stevens’ plan. Perhaps this has required adjustments from the coach. But Stevens continues to make Horford’s minutes valuable.
Over the last few weeks, Irving has been dealing with irritation in his left knee, which led to a surgery that will hold him out of basketball activities for three to six weeks.
Again, the season felt like it was over in Boston. Time to start thinking about next year? Not so fast.
With those three stars contributing less on offense — or not at all — Stevens has had to figure out how to get the Celtics’ points to add up. One way he’s done that is by stopping the opponent from scoring. Atop the defensive win shares with Horford is Marcus Smart (fourth), Jaylen Brown (sixth) and Jayson Tatum (ninth). In 2016-17, the Celtics’ top defensive contributor was Smart at 50th in defensive win shares. Irving, who was 168th in defensive win shares in 2017-18 with the Cavaliers, is currently 29th with the Celtics. The story on Irving was that he doesn’t play defense. Stevens has figured out how to change that.
Offensively and defensively, the Celtics managed without Hayward. They accelerated the development of Tatum and Brown. Tatum, in particular, looks like one of the NBA’s bright, young stars on both ends of the floor. And again, Stevens has brought those two players along in a way that has helped the team win — and not cost the team wins.
Without Irving, the Celtics have often relied upon Terry Rozier, who has averaged 16.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists in the 13 games when Irving has been absent. He exploded for 33 points on Sunday night against the Sacramento Kings. Rozier did so on a night when the Celtics’ other less-secret offensive weapon, Marcus Morris, was out with an ankle injury. He has enjoyed two 30-plus-point nights in the last five games.
Stevens should be in the consideration for Coach of the Year. The case will be made for Dwayne Casey, whose Raptors are sitting above the Celtics in the East. He’s enjoyed more success than Stevens, but has also had the luxury of healthy stars. The Raptors have floated to the top of a lackluster Eastern Conference not only because of their own talent but also because of the lack of talent on the Celtics and Cavaliers. Despite Stevens’ strong case, Casey is ultimately the likely winner.
The Celtics coach has managed his superstars, developmental prospects and role players in a way that has kept the Celtics in the mix for a run at an NBA Finals berth. He’s done that in a season when many counted him out after five minutes of play. The question will be how well he continues to do that when the playoffs roll around.
Because of how well he’s bested the odds, the Celtics have the expectation of making the Eastern Conference Finals or bust.