The Celtics traded for Kyrie Irving and signed Gordon Hayward as a free agent in the offseason and it was a message, like they'd hired skywriters in Boston, that making the Eastern Conference Finals wasn't enough for them. In a Warriors world and a LeBron world, a new world order in the NBA with a handful of super teams, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge let everybody know he planned to be one of those teams. He was conceding nothing, to no one. Ainge wanted it all.
Then Hayward went down with a broken ankle five minutes into the first game of the season against LeBron and the Cavaliers. Here is what Hayward wrote recently on his Facebook page, in a blog appropriately called, "In an instant":
"They needed four people to carry me off and Coach (Brad) Stevens was one of them. There were probably 25 people there that all wanted to help, but he wanted to make sure he was one of the people to do it. I mean…that's the person he is."
Stevens had coached Hayward at Butler, when the kid came within inches of making a halfcourt shot to beat Duke in an NCAA final game in Indianapolis, in what would only have been the most famous shot in college basketball history. So Hayward didn't just know what kind of person Stevens is, he knew what kind of coach he is. Now they had been reunited in Boston, and their storybook basketball story would continue.
The Celtics stayed down for a couple of games. Only then, Brad Stevens -- who just turned 41 a few weeks ago -- did with the Celtics what he helped do in Cleveland that night after Hayward went down:
Got them back up.
Now they have the best record, 9-2, in the NBA, without Hayward. They are playing the best defense in the league. It is a tribute to the depth Ainge has assembled, in a team that returned only four players from last season, and also a tribute to Ainge's genius as an executive. But, man oh man, it is also a tribute to the coach whom he convinced to leave Butler and come coach the Celtics after Doc Rivers left, the young guy from Zionsville, Ind., who is the best basketball coach working anywhere, a prodigy who somehow just keeps getting better.
This is nothing against any of the other giants of the profession, especially the ones who have won championships in college and the pros. This is nothing against Gregg Popovich, or Coach K, or Coach Roy, or Coach Cal, or Jim Boeheim, or any of the others who have won thousands of games among them. But if you put them all in a gym and held a coaching draft, I would take Stevens first.
He is that good at what he does. Doesn't mean this will continue with the Celtics this season, now built around Kyrie Irving and Al Horford and a wonderful kid, Jayson Tatum, drafted out of Duke by Ainge because he liked Tatum better than Markelle Fultz. But just look at what the coach of the Celtics has done so far, with basically a new basketball team from the one that had the best record in the conference last season and finally went up against LeBron and the Cavs in the conference finals. Look at the work he always does with what he has.
Stevens went to the NCAA finals the first time when Hayward was his star, and played Coach K and Duke all the way to the buzzer in Indy. Hayward's ball was in the air at the end, and the Butler Bulldogs, Stevens' Butler Bulldogs from just up the road, had come that close to winning it all; to being a Cinderella story for all time in their sport, a real-life "Hoosiers," with a coach who still looks like a student manager playing a real-life version of Norman Dale.
In that moment, everybody was talking about Stevens, because it looked as if he had just done one of the great coaching jobs of all time in college basketball. Except that he did an even better job the next year, when Butler made it back to the finals before losing to UConn, on a night when everybody from Butler forgot how to shoot at the same time.
It did not diminish a second run like that to the last Monday night in college basketball, without Hayward now, who had left school early to go play for the Utah Jazz. Somehow, Stevens figured it out with Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored and Matt Howard and a center named Andrew Smith. Now Stevens had done perhaps the best one-season coaching job that anybody could remember in his sport.
It was another storybook season for him and his team, another memory for Butler basketball, but one touched by tragedy five years later, when Smith passed away after a long and ultimately losing battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and leukemia. He was 25 at the time. The Celtics played the Pacers in Indianapolis a couple of months before Smith died, and Stevens was able to visit him in the hospital, knowing that he was saying goodbye.
When he got word that Smith had died in January 2016, Stevens said, "You get a lot more out of coaching them than they do from you."
Stevens said: "I could go on and on, but it wouldn't do [Smith] justice."
Nothing is ever about Stevens, at least according to him. I ran into the coach between the semis and the finals at the 2011 Final Four in Houston, and told him what a tribute it was to his talent that he had somehow figured out a way to do it again, and do it without Hayward.
"It's never about me," he said. "It's always about them."
It is about him, too. There have been other young guys called basketball Mozarts. Just no one better than him lately. He is able to impose structure on a beautiful game, able to get players to play together, able to consistently make the whole, wherever he is coaching, at whatever level, somehow be greater than the sum of its parts. It was this way when Bill Walsh was coaching the 49ers in the 1980s. Somehow what he could do with X's and O's was different from what everybody else was doing. It is a kind of genius that cannot simply be measured in titles, and numbers of wins.
The Celtics' latest win, their ninth in a row, was against the Hawks, who had just beaten the Cavaliers. Admittedly, that is not such a tough thing these days, beating the Cavs. But Atlanta had still gotten a game off Kyrie's old team. Now Kyrie got one off the Hawks, ringing them up for 35 points.
In praising his performance Stevens said this after the game:
"He made a lot of good reads."
Funny how that seems to keep happening with Brad Stevens' teams. For now, and with such a long way to go, the best coach in the league has the best team in the league. We all thought he did some job last year. He does an even better one this year. But then he's had practice at this kind of work. Butler got back up without Gordon Hayward. Now Stevens' Celtics do the same.