Early season adversity is putting spotlight on Brad Stevens' magical touch

Boston Celtics coach reaches back to days at Butler to help current team move past Gordon Hayward injury

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

*Tonight on ESPN: Lakers vs. Celtics (8 ET)

When Brad Stevens lost Gordon Hayward, he rounded up the remaining group and delivered a simple yet direct message designed to keep them moving, tough as it was to do.

“I don’t need you to do more,” Stevens said. “I need you to do better.”

It was well received by Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown, and also rookie Jayson Tatum and Al Horford, because the Celtics are surprisingly sitting at the summit in the Eastern Conference without their All-Star forward, who could miss most if not all of the season. But it also registered with Shawn Vanzant and Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored. Because, you see, Stevens actually lost Hayward twice, most recently to a gruesome ankle fracture.

The first time was when Hayward left Stevens and Butler for the NBA after his sophomore year.

Both times, the coach connected with a shortchanged lineup and forged a belief in his players that the goal and philosophy remained unchanged. The Butler Bulldogs regrouped without Hayward and returned to the NCAA championship game, a feat that, on the shock meter, supplanted the previous year when the mid-major Cinderella school nearly sucker-punched Duke at the buzzer. The Celtics, at least here in the early season, are on track to duplicate that.

It says plenty about Stevens and his unflappable nature and attention to detail. Perhaps he is the right coach, then, in this situation with the Celtics, given his experience with such things. Actually, you can go a step further: When Stevens took Butler to the title game the first time, he became a wanted man in college basketball; all the big schools with a coaching vacancy (and some without one) made their pitch. But when he returned to the title game without Hayward the next year, this time his wanted poster circulated around the NBA.

That repeat run effectively was the swinging mallet that shattered the notion in NBA circles that college coaches couldn’t make the jump, a belief that held a measure of legitimacy, given those who tried and failed badly. At least in this particular case, Celtics boss Danny Ainge followed his instincts and especially his eyes. How could a coach motivate a team, without its star, back to the title game the very next year?

What else was there to see?

Stevens is coaching the Celtics right now because of the way Stevens coached Butler in 2010-11. That was enough to dismiss major concerns about his age (he was 36 when hired by Boston two years later) and his unfamiliarity with the NBA culture and his nearly zero experience in coaching NBA-level players and their egos. That season without Hayward is arguably on the Mount Rushmore of college coaching performances.

That season, he had Mack, who became a career NBA backup point guard; Howard, a career overseas player; and a bunch of future 9-to-5ers. That’s it. That’s who lined up against mighty Connecticut while a disbelieving basketball nation looked on.

“It was a goal, to get back to the championship game, and everybody thought we were crazy to think like that because we lost Gordon,” said Shawn Vanzant, a senior guard on that team. “Well, we knew we could.”

Butler had seasoned returnees from the 2009-2010 team but no All-American candidates, nothing like that. If anything, it was a surprise the Bulldogs still had Stevens, who was understandably the hot coaching prospect in the country that summer. But by turning down all offers he showed a level of loyalty rarely seen among mid-major coaches who haven’t yet cashed a big paycheck.

That next season Butler hit a speedbump, though, bottoming out during a frigid winter stretch where they lost four out of five, including three in a row to the likes of Wright State and UW-Milwaukee. A conference loss at Youngstown on Feb. 3 put their chances of making the NCAA tournament in question and lowered their record to 14-9. How could they return as giant slayers when they were struggling in the Horizon League?

“When that happened, it wasn’t one of those rah-rah kind of things with him,” said Micah Shrewsberry, a former Butler assistant who’s now on Stevens’ staff with the Celtics. “That’s what Brad is really good at, staying level headed.

“The message was to move on to the next game, just refocus as a group. He said we’re playing too tense, not playing relaxed. We had pressure because of what happened to us the year before and he took that pressure off of us. We needed to live more day by day, minute by minute, possession by possession and he refocused us back to that. He told the players that it was all about each possession, that’s all you need to worry about.”

Well, Butler didn’t lose again until the title game to UConn two months later.

He got everybody understanding his value to the team, his role and that if we concentrated our abilities together we can still do it, we can still get done what we need to get done.”

Emerson Kampen, who played on Butler’s 2011 Final Four team

“I guess,” said center Emerson Kampen, “we got the message that things had to change and they had to change quickly.”

Unlike this year’s Celtics, who have Irving as a certified NBA lead singer, Butler lost its leading scorer and designated bail-out player with Hayward and there was nobody with those credentials in the lineup to take his place. That’s with all due respect to Mack and Howard, both fine players. Stevens had his team thinking what it could do collectively to compensate and the players brought into the idea.

“He got everybody understanding his value to the team, his role and that if we concentrated our abilities together we can still do it, we can still get done what we need to get done,” said Kampen, now a Butler assistant coach. “He’s an unbelievable communicator. I was a walk-on, and you feel your role is super important whether that’s the best player or somebody who doesn’t get into the game.”

Butler won three of its first four tournament games by a combined six points, breaking brackets everywhere and making folks believe in Stevens, in case some were still skeptical about the coach.

“He never panicked and so we never panicked either,” said Vanzant. “No matter if it was a big school and we were underdogs, he gave us confidence. It was, ‘Go out and do what we’ve been doing all year and it’s going to be fun.’ A lot of our players didn’t care who we played and where we played the game.”

The in-game adjustments that have impressed Irving (who called Stevens “an intellectual”) were polished during the second tournament run when Butler needed the right play at the right time. Matthew Graves was the associate head coach that year and said Stevens was masterful with the dry erase board.

“He does such a great job of preparation,” said Graves, now the head coach at South Alabama. “Once we got into the tourney we were prepared and also got some breaks along the way and before you know it we’re in the championship game. He’s so good at picking out the exact points where you need to exploit defensively or what you can do offensively to help put your team in the best frame of mind. He allows the players to play free and think clearly and that showed in the pressure moments.”

When Stevens lost Hayward the second time, and once everyone’s jaws and hearts were picked up off the floor after that horrific injury, once again he didn’t panic. He told Tatum, the Celtics’ highly regarded rookie, to become an opportunist and maximize the extra minutes. He wanted more defensive doggedness from Brown, who agreed with the coach. And the blueprint from the preseason was hastily rewritten.

“We had to tweak a little what we’ve had to do offensively,” said Stevens. “Defensively we tried to stay with what we what we started from day one. We just wanted everyone to do what you do best.”

Did everyone need to do more without Hayward?

“When somebody goes out, the thought is they have to do more,” said Stevens. “Actually, they just have to do their job better.”

The Celtics have done that and take a nine-game winning streak into the Garden on Wednesday against the Lakers. Shrewsberry said the players have bought into those ideas, saying: “Gordon is still a big part of it obviously but we can still do the things we want to do. Brad’s influence is calming and I think that settled the guys down.”

Brown said: “There was two ways to go. We could sulk until the season’s over, or we could step up and play some basketball.”

Stevens is keeping Hayward in the loop by inviting him into strategy meetings and going over assignments, and says this is part of the rehab process. It’s an idea he got from Orlando coach Frank Vogel, who dealt with Paul George’s broken leg two years ago with the Pacers. Vogel and Stevens became friends when both coached in Indianapolis, so Stevens reached out.

“It wasn’t just about what Paul could help Gordon with, (given) what he was going through with the injury, but also how we could best brainstorm to keep him as engaged as possible,” said Stevens. “Engagement is really important. There is a physical aspect to recovery but there’s also an emotional aspect to recovery and being a part of a team. You don’t want to come back and not been engaged with everyone.”

Until the All-Star forward fully recovers, Stevens wants to keep the bond tight between Hayward, himself and the Celtics, and this is another well-timed strategy by the coach.

This happens when you’ve lost your basketball soulmate twice. You tend to get a bit protective.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.