In his first two seasons in the NBA, Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier played sporadically during games, and sometimes not at all. To keep him sharp, coach Brad Stevens ordered Rozier and his end-of-the-bench compatriots to attend mandatory off-day workouts, where the reserves would run through drills and play three-on-three.
It is not uncommon for NBA reserves to practice more than the starters and key role players who rack up big minutes. But what Rozier witnessed at his practice sessions was rare: Every time, Stevens would stay until the final shot had been taken, sometimes stepping into a game or drill himself. The head coach tended to the scrubs as if they were stars.
“He’d just always care,” Rozier said. “Even when guys would get extra reps, the guys that weren’t playing as much, he’d be there always watching until you were done. Sometimes, he would jump in the drills. You’re not seeing too many head coaches do that.”
Stevens’ treatment of Rozier informs the way the Celtics have thrived this season. In the face of constant injury, including the devastating losses of stars Gordon Hayward — who sustained a gruesome left ankle injury and a fractured tibia five minutes into the season — and Kyrie Irving, the Celtics still wrestled the No. 2 seed and a matchup with the seventh-seeded Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA playoffs. The series begins Sunday at 1 p.m. in Boston.
The Celtics succeeded for many reasons — Stevens’ tactical acumen, Al Horford’s genius defensive movement, the stellar combination of 21-year-old Jaylen Brown and 20-year-old Jayson Tatum. The most compelling cause behind the Celtics’ season might be the fundamental bedrock of how Stevens handles his program — he still refers to the Celtics as a program, a vestige from his days taking a Horizon League team to consecutive Final Fours as Butler’s wunderkind head coach. Those who know Stevens say he focuses to make every person in the program — from low-level assistants to equipment managers to Irving and Brown — feel valued and prepared.
“Whoever he has out on the floor, he’s going to try to put the team in the best possible position to succeed — the team and the player,” said Terry Johnson, a former Stevens assistant at Butler who is now on Ohio State’s staff. “He knows the strengths of every single staff member, manager, coach, player — it doesn’t matter. He knows the strengths of everyone.”
Rozier said Stevens treats him the same now that he’s starting and one of Boston’s top scorers as he did when Rozier was a rooking playing minor minutes. Stevens instructs assistants to coach every player at their position as if they’re going to play a prominent role not in some undetermined future, but the very next game. When the Celtics lost players, those who filled roles had already been groomed.
“All year, it hasn’t changed for him,” Horford said. “For a lot of the guys, being able to step into these roles, it’s easy because Coach has already been treating them like that all along. I think it makes a difference.”
The approach has allowed Stevens to manipulate his roster and overcome injuries that, for other teams, may have been insurmountable. The Celtics are 9-5 since Irving last played, despite several games that meant nothing in playoff seeding. They have employed 19 starting lineups, only three of them more than four times. The injuries didn’t stop at Hayward and Irving. Horford missed nine games. Marcus Smart, a defensive menace and part of Boston’s soul, missed 30 and remains sidelined.
When the Celtics have suffered key injuries, Stevens and his staff refused to address it with the team, instead outlining roles and responsibilities as if nothing had changed.
“It’s kind of going back to the Spurs model — whoever’s playing is supposed to play this exact way, and to this standard, and that’s what we’re going to hold you to,” said Celtics assistant coach Micah Shrewsbury, Stevens’ aid since his days at Butler. “We kind of feel the same way. No matter who it is, we’re going to prepare to win. If you’re out there, you’re expected to play at a certain level.”
In the third game of the season, Stevens inserted Jabari Bird — a rookie who would appear in 13 games all season — in a crucial moment to defend J.J. Redick. The Celtics outscored the Sixers by 11 points in 13 minutes with Bird on the floor, and they won by 10. For an overhauled roster with only four players remaining from 2016-17, it served a lesson in Stevens’ approach.
“Nobody had ever seen that before, in terms of him going down the bench like that and grabbing a guy,” Shrewsbury said. “I think it kind of opened everybody’s eyes — hey, we need to be ready.”
In the absence of Hayward and Irving, the Celtics have adjusted. Without Irving’s magnificent isolation game, the Celtics have further emphasized ball movement. Tatum and Brown have taken on more of a scoring role. Rozier has become one of the primary guards to initiate the offense.
“A lot of these guys have played major roles for us all year,” Stevens said. “The guys that haven’t can fit into what we’re doing. So we’ll make tweaks that accentuate Jaylen and Jayson and Al, Marcus Morris and Terry and some of the guys that are playing a ton of minutes, to do what they do best. But we started the year with stuff for those guys. Ultimately, maybe it’s doing it a little bit more. Maybe it’s game-to-game adding a few things that fit what they do best, depending on how they’re being guarded, etc. The one thing you can’t do is, you can’t overhaul at this time of the year. You’ve spent too much time building habits.”
Back in October, when Hayward landed awkwardly and dislocated his ankle, Johnson felt heartbroken for Hayward, whom he had coached at Butler. His next thought was, “Brad’s gonna figure something out.” He remembered their first Final Four run, when Butler’s starting forward got into foul trouble in the Elite Eight and Stevens turned to freshman Andrew Smith, who had not played since December but still contributed solid minutes. Stevens had prepared him for the moment, and Johnson knew the Celtics would benefit from the same mentality.
“It’s part of who he is as a person,” Shrewsbury said. “You treat everybody the same, no matter who it is. If you start with that foundation, and then down the scenarios of things that happen, you have to have guys that you count on at some point in time. Having each guy stay ready and stay prepared is really important. We had those scenarios a couple of times at Butler. We had times where we had to throw in walk-ons. Everybody is prepared for their time.”