You knew the resume was going to catch up with the hype.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens got over the hump on Friday night, as the Boston Celtics pounded the living daylights out of the Bulls 105-83 to win their first-round series 4-2. Stevens improved his postseason record to 6-10 and escaped the first round for the first time as an NBA coach.
When the Bulls went up 2-0, the jokes came fast and furious. (I made many.) "Fred Hoiberg has as many postseason wins as Brad Stevens." And some in Boston were actually serious about canning one of the most respected coaches in the game. But the Celtics rattled off four straight for a backdoor "clean-up" sweep, and advance to the second round for the first time since 2012.
It's not a marquee moment for the franchise, because it is this franchise. The Celtics don't have to celebrate division titles, or second-round appearances. Raptors fans were excited on Thursday to finish off the Bucks in less than the maximum games. But it's different for the Celtics, who, if anything, know that they almost let this series get way out of hand.
But for Stevens, it was proving ground. He's made mistakes, and been ineffectual with adjustments in the past, even when overmatched in term of roster the past two years. There was nothing he could do to help the Celtics beat the Cavaliers two years ago, but he also didn't do anything to make that a legit series. Last year he was hamstrung by injuries, but the Celtics were also overwhelmed by the Hawks.
This year, however, Stevens had tricks on tricks to rally the Celtics over the 8-seed. He moved Gerald Green (!) into the starting lineup, to great results in spreading the floor. He went small, spreading the Bulls out, minimizing the impact of Robin Lopez, who had been dominant early on -- effectively turning the Bulls' biggest strength in this series into a tactical disadvantage. He managed to navigate the tragic circumstances surrounding Isaiah Thomas without using it for a cheap motivational tactic; that would have backfired. Instead, he kept the right perspective, trusted the players to right themselves, fired them up when they needed it, lit into them when it was called for, and got the response he needed.
The difference in Stevens was always about accomplishment, never certification. He is clearly a gifted tactician, and his after-time-out plays still are some of the best you'll see in the league. He is well-liked by the players, but you'll also notice few profiles on Stevens. Maybe that's a genuine dislike for such endeavors, maybe it's because he knows how dangerously close the media is to making him the star, rather than crediting Isaiah Thomas and the players as the driving force behind the success.
But he hadn't won, and that matters. Or it did. You have to be able to show you can win in the playoffs, or you risk becoming Tom Thibodeau, whose teams were lethal in the regular season and kitty cats when the playoffs came because they had no extra gear. Whether the Celtics have an extra gear is still unknown, they got past Chicago because they are the supremely better team and that was evident by the series end. That's not a knock on Boston. They're the 1-seed for a reason.
The next series will be a much fuller test of both the Celtics and Stevens. Scott Brooks is often the target of flamethrower attacks, but he's also a guy who found ways to flummox Gregg Popovich in 2012, Doc Rivers in 2014, and kept his team grounded this year. Brooks is not Fred Hoiberg, no matter how predictable OKC's late-game offense became in his time there.
There are real challenges next round for Stevens. How to hide Isaiah Thomas on defense, for one. Thomas did a marvelous job on Jimmy Butler, so maybe he'll lock down John Wall or Bradley Beal, too, but the more likely scenario involves having to make sure he can hide Thomas on Otto Porter without Porter grabbing a thousand offensive rebounds. Slowing down Wall and Beal is tricky with their size, athleticism and scoring ability. This series is going to be emotional and testy, which means keeping Marcus Smart emotionally tethered will be a challenge.
And still, the Celtics might have all the answers. Going small might genuinely throw a wrench in things for Washington, which doesn't have the personnel to match up that way. If Stevens can find tricks to get Isaiah Thomas in space, he could feast on Washington's inconsistent defense. The Celtics have a huge bench advantage in this series, which benefits Stevens, who likes to dig deep into the player reservoir.
Everything points to this being a series in which Stevens can again create advantages.
But regardless of this next series, he's at gotten on the postseason board. He's taken a big step toward earning those stripes which every coach in the league already knew him as worthy of, and now can focus on bigger fish the Celtics look to fry, starting with what looks to be a monster, mean, vicious series vs. the Wizards.