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That’s the surprising NBA Boston Celtics in the East finals

Stevens went from Butler University’s historic Hinkle Field House in Indianapolis to coach the Boston Celtics and make a genius out of team president Danny Ainge  

By Arnie Leshin 
Arnie Leshin

I was okay with the Boston Tea Party, didn’t mind Paul Reverse riding through the city to warn that the British were coming, but when it came to sports, there was no way I rooted for the teams up New England way, with the emphasis on Boston.

But I’ve also been a sports journalist for six and one-half decades, covered the pro circuit as in NBA, NFL, NHL and Major League baseball. But as a native New Yorker, I resented the Celtics, the Patriots, the Bruins, and the Red Sox.

Not only the teams, but the fans. They are a rowdy bunch dressed up in Celtic green, probably hold the record for courtside ejections. They are as die-hard as any other fans, and not the best experience for a visiting reporter like me.

I’ll never forget the first round playoffs matching favored Boston against the New Jersey Nets. The Celtics won the first two at home and celebrated with Cornflakes Maxwell jumping onto the press table and calling out to the crowd. He was then joined by Paul Pierce.

But it was a best-of-three and back in New Jersey, the fired-up Nets won back-to-back games and then won game five in Celtic land. Maxwell disappeared as soon as the game ended. He didn’t want to watch the other team celebrate.

But I’ve always given credit where credit is due. Nice job, Dwane Casey, but you’re not the NBA Coach of the Year. Sure, you did a good job in five seasons of coaching the Toronto Raptors, but the franchise fired you just one day after you were announced as Coach of the Year in a poll of 30 NBA coaches.

With all due respect to Casey, he did well, was even the top-seed in the East this season, but once again was swept in the first round by the Cleveland Cavaliers. He had a representative squad each season, but never advanced in the playoffs, and the reality is that good isn’t good enough anymore.

Enter Brad Stevens. His 2nd seeded Boston Celtics are still playing despite early-season injuries, a group of youngsters mixed with some veterans, but with a team that believes in him.

Credit must go to team president Danny Ainge who plucked him from Butler University five years ago. He began there as an assistant, and when he became head coach, took the Bulldogs to back-to-back NCAA finals. He was 166-49 overall in 13 seasons.

He was born in 1976, 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed. He was signed by Boston the day before the Fourth of July. He can be called the All-American coach. Plus, he has made Ainge look like a genius.

It was bye bye, historic Hinke Field House and welcome to Celtic country.

All his teams have been well-coached, smart, and rally around him. No controversies at all, even the Celtic fans cheer him, he’s popular with the media, and this season has shown just how remarkable he’s been.

And he did not receive a single vote for Coach of the Year. He didn’t ask for one either.

“I thought Dwane Casey deserved the award,” Stevens said.

Really? While you just blew out the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers in five games of the East semifinals of the playoffs, while Toronto again fell in the first round, and while you dominated the visiting Cavaliers in game one of the East finals.

Your aggressive defense limited superstar LeBron James to a playoff-low 15 points on 6-for-21 shooting, with Marcus Morris limiting him all game and the Cavs being blown out.

Led by rookie Jayson Tatum, Boston’s youth is playing beyond their years, and this includes second-year player Jaylen Brown. The big man producing is 7-foot veteran Al Horford. He anchors the defense, puts in key baskets, and rallies the troops, plus 6-11 Aron Baynes provides inside depth.

Free agent Terry Rozier came over from the Raptors. He’s a veteran guard who finds himself coming off the bench for Stevens’ team, even welcomes it.

Now, picture the head coach after his former Butler All-America Gordon Hayward was signed as a free agent from the Utah Jazz, and suffered a probable season-ending injury in the first game. He came down with a rebound and went down with a hard blow to his knees, causing damage to both.

Then there was the injury to backcourt star Kyle Irving after he was acquired in the trade with Cleveland. He returned then reinjured himself, so he sits next to Hayward on the bench.

No matter, not to Stevens. He shrugged it all off and continued to apply his coaching methods. He has been found to have one of the sharpest minds in the NBA. They speak of San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Golden State’s Steve Kerr as two of the better coaches, but Stevens now deserves the same recognition.

Usually, college coaches don’t make good NBA coaches, and there’s a long list to prove it. Stevens is not on this list.

“He’s one heck of a coach,” says Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant. “His teams don’t quit, they listen to him and piece together a winning offense and defense. They run when they have to, they take good care of the ball, crash the boards, and that’s because of him.”

Except that 41-year-old Stevens doesn’t say much about himself, mostly praises the team and the fans.

While at Butler, he prepared his teams, getting a wide-open shot or layup out of every after-timeout situation. This has carried over in spades with Boston. Injuries come and go, but he has the talent and the media narrative that he’s a magician who is conjuring this success out of whole cloth is a slight exaggeration.

He has created a system in which Rozier can step in for Irving, Tatum, Brown or Marcus Smart. Players are empowered to fill a role that fits their skillset and provides the confidence that they can do so.

Yes, the credit for the creation of that system, and the players within it, goes to the Coach of the Year, Brad Stevens.  

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