ATLANTA -- With all of that noise from the hometown crowd threatening to blow a hole through the roof at Philips Arena Tuesday night, the Atlanta Hawks exploded in the third quarter toward a 110-83 rout against the Boston Celtics in their best-of-seven series and now take a 3-2 lead. So, officially, the Celtics and their third-year NBA coach, Brad Stevens, are one loss away from elimination in the first round for the second consecutive year.
Yeah, well. Let's talk unofficially for a moment. No matter what the Celtics do the rest of the way with their 3-2 deficit, Stevens has already won.
If you disagree, raise your hand if you thought the world's most unflappable person wouldn't last this long in the professional ranks before crying his way back to the college ranks.
Both of my hands are raised, especially since Stevens looks a couple of decades younger than his 39 years.
With that in mind, the following was vintage Stevens. After this one, as his extremely young team sat quietly in the visitors' locker room recalling how their egos were knocked out of the arena by the Hawks outscoring them 42-23 in the third quarter, he spoke softly.
Then again, Stevens doesn't have shouting in his body.
"I just walked in, and I said, 'Listen, we have to do a couple of things that are obvious to the naked eye that we can control, and we'll look at film to figure out what else we can do better, and we'll move forward,'" Stevens said. "I mean, there is no need to light into anybody or to give a big Knute Rockne speech between Game 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference playoffs. You just get ready for the next one, prepare really well and come out the way we came out today. Which was focused and ready. We just didn't sustain it."
No, the Celtics didn't, with much help from the Hawks' reign of threes from the end of the second quarter through the third. Atlanta sank 11 of its 14 3-pointers for the game during that stretch.
"They didn't miss for an hour," said Celtics swingman Evan Turner, only somewhat exaggerating.
As a result, the Celtics are done for the season if they drop Game 6 on Thursday night in Boston or, should they win that one, Game 7 Saturday night in Atlanta.
Still, Stevens wins in the long run, because of so many reasons. For one, he's not already back at Butler University or some other college program that would hug his slight frame forever. Second, the Hawks were expected to roll through this series from the start, and that was even before Avery Bradley suffered a series-ending hamstring injury to take his mighty scoring and stifling defense out of the Celtics lineup.
Despite that and the Hawks sprinting to a 2-0 lead, Stevens strung together enough X's and O's with his smaller lineups to pull his team even in the series at 2-2. More impressive, when he began his rookie year as an NBA coach with the franchise of Bill Russell, John Havlicek and Larry Bird, none of those guys were on the roster anymore. Stevens inherited a kelly green mess of a rebuilding job. Instead of whining through a first season that produced just 25 victories out of 82, he kept preaching his same basketball sermon while acquiring players who believed his gospel.
"Since I first got here, I've heard about The Process over and over from him, and he kept telling us that this whole thing is all going to come together," said Evan Turner, in his fifth NBA season and his second under Stevens. "He's always telling us to stay on the right path. Even though they were out of playoff contention (Stevens' first year), he didn't change his approach. He made two or three different trades. Things like that."
Then the Celtics jumped to 40 victories last season. They also reached the playoffs, where they were flattened in four games by the Cleveland Cavaliers, owners of LeBron James to nobody of that ilk for the Celtics. Goodness knows, they still lack a true superstar, but they've gathered enough pieces with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, along with Bradley, Turner and others to fit into Stevens' system, and he has a system.
Johnson nodded, saying, "I've been in this game a long time (10 years in the NBA), and I just know the great coaches stick to their game plan, like Phil Jackson and his triangle offense. Gregg Popovich has his system. You have to have a process, and there's going to be some ups and downs. But as long as you stick to your game plan and you truly know it works, you'll be successful."
Sounds like Stevens. Long before the Celtics, he turned The Butler Way into his way, and the Bulldogs became a mid-major powerhouse. Given that and Stevens' lifelong ties as a Hoosier, well, no way this guy was going anywhere, and he especially wasn't taking that baby face to the NBA.
"I actually didn't try to predict what he would do, and I didn't want to guess how he would do in the pros," said Barry Collier, Butler's athletics director, who was Stevens' boss for six years. He knows nearly as much about this fledgling 21st Century Red Auerbach without the cigar as Mark and Jan Stevens, Brad's parents who raised him back in Indianapolis, where the former was an orthopedic surgeon and the latter was a retired college professor from IUPUI. After solid careers as a player in high school and at tiny DePauw University in Indiana, he was a successful marketing executive for local ELi Lilly, and then he followed his passion to coach basketball at Butler. He went from an unpaid assistant to working five seasons for Collier as Butler basketball coach.
I should say Stevens was Collier's highly successful Butler basketball coach. During the Stevens Era, the Bulldogs captured 77 percent of their games, owned a mighty slingshot against Goliaths and reached the NCAA Tournament four times, including the championship game of the Final Four in consecutive years. If you think he resembles a ball boy now, just imagine his appearance during those Butler days, when Collier first hired the then 31-year-old Stevens as the second-youngest coach in college basketball at the time.
This guy? Coaching in the pros, where college coaches have gone to watch their careers die in a hurry?
Stevens' steady rise with the Celtics makes sense to Collier. Remember: This is the Butler AD of less than a year who had a dilemma after his basketball coach, Todd Lickliter, bolted for the University of Iowa. In the end, Collier sifted through more than 100 candidates. With a veteran team returning for the Bulldogs, he decided he needed somebody who understood the Butler Way, which also featured Collier as a splendid Bulldogs coach before he took over Nebraska and later Thad Matta, now coaching Ohio State.
"The biggest thing that made an impression on me involving Brad was his clarity of thought and his gift of expression," Collier said. "He's highly intelligent, and he's an extremely good communicator. In fact, he's the best I've ever been around, period, and I'm talking about in any field. He's really a great listener. He expresses himself extremely well. I just think he's a special guy who has the unique ability to figure things out."
Which leads to a final question for Collier, who ranks as the definitive person to answer the following: Will he return to somebody's campus someday to run their hoops program?
Collier paused over the phone from Indianapolis.
"Um, who knows?" Collier said. "I kind of wish he comes back to college, but that's a selfish thing, because I know the impact he has on kids. But I can see him being a lifer in the NBA. He keeps getting better in the pros, and he's just in his third year. Where is that going to stop? I don't know."
Here's what we do know: Stevens' system works.