No coach has a harder time battling expectations than Brad Stevens. He has been hailed as one of the best coaches in the NBA, but he has never won a playoff series. His roster is flawed, sure -- a sum-is-greater-than-the-parts compilation of role players and sub-stars. But that excuse won't fly forever.
And he hasn't been perfect. Yes, his teams have been generally outmatched in the playoffs, and thus, not blaming him for those losses is reasonable. At the same time, he wouldn't have been the first coach to X and O his way to a playoff win with a limited roster. Against Cleveland in 2015, he never made any kind of meaningful adjustment, never really found a single matchup to exploit to at least put a scare into a better team, and last spring he was resoundingly outcoached by Mike Budenholzer in a first-round loss to the Hawks.
This year again, Stevens seemed helpless as the Celtics went down 2-0 to the eighth-seeded Bulls, and Stevens fell to the worst winning percentage for any coach through 12 games coached in the playoffs. The Celtics, finally the better team on paper, looked completely out-schemed and outmatched. It was time for Stevens to make his mark.
In Game 3, he did just that. The Celtics rolled to a 104-87 victory Friday to pull the series to 2-1. And Stevens made a series of fairly brilliant adjustments which helped in a big way.
- Stevens went super small from the jump, starting Gerald Green in place of Amir Johnson and moving Jae Crowder to the power forward spot next to Al Horford. This accomplished two things. One, it spread the Bulls out more, getting the Celtics' offense going. Second, the addition of Green gave them a wing whose athleticism meant they could crash the glass. While two bigs collapsed on Robin Lopez, one of the wings would swoop in while having another get back in transition. Avery Bradley snatched seven boards in part due to this. The starting unit for Boston had a plus-39 net rating per 100 possessions, with a sub-80 defensive rating. It was a crazy move that worked out brilliantly.
- Stevens also elected not to go to a tighter rotation, and instead played nine guys double-digit minutes. He only played Isaiah Thomas 31 minutes, effectively using him as a spark plug the way Thomas used to play as a sixth man, but in a starting role. Meanwhile, Terry Rozier combined with Bradley to provide a balanced, athletic backcourt for stretches without the defensive issues that come with playing alongside Thomas. Stevens found a way to get the most out of Thomas and the team.
- He took Johnson out of the rotation almost entirely. Many of the issues for Johnson weren't his fault, but how he played alongside the other starters. Going small and moving to Jonas Jerebko was a wise move, and recognizing the lack of flow and spacing that was plaguing those Johnson units was a great adjustment.
- There were also tactical adjustments. Part of it was the absence of Rajon Rondo, but the Celtics were much better prepared for the aggressive traps the Bulls had used through the first two games in the pick and roll. Thomas finished with five assists in just 31 minutes, Bradley had four, Horford five. They punished the Bulls in a way they did not in the first two games.
- From a mental perspective, the Celtics were locked in, and brought much more energy and focus, along with physicality. They threw Robin Lopez to the ground on rebounds. Granted, it took two of them, but the Celtics hit first, and Stevens deserves credit for helping get them in that mindset -- with a little .
On the other side, this was the game when the Fred Hoiberg who has been talked about as being on the hot seat showed up. He allowed the Celtics to play Lopez right off the floor, and, in mind-numbing fashion, refused to go to lineups that didn't feature a point guard until the game was out of hand. Jerian Grant and Michael Carter-Williams were both simply not ready for that moment, and combined for seven turnovers.
Jimmy Butler had a bad night, Rondo's absence was glaring, but Hoiberg was caught off guard by things he should have been prepared for in Rondo's absence. If he can't find answers in Game 4, the momentum of this series may be in too much of a breakaway for the Bulls to recover.
Stevens hasn't earned the reputation he's gotten, at least in the playoffs, but he also showed Friday why so many other coaches respect him and think so highly of him. He made the adjustments the Celtics needed, and the result was a win they had to get.