The lady in the stands was holding up a sign that spoke for legions of Indiana University basketball fans: Brad Stevens = Banner #6.
She meant if Stevens would just come back to Indiana and coach IU, a sixth NCAA championship banner would be raised in Assembly Hall. Problem is, the way things are going these days it seems more likely Stevens will be part of an 18th NBA championship in Boston someday.
For those who thought the Boy Wonder coach who led plucky little Butler to consecutive NCAA championship game appearances would be swallowed whole by the villainous, voracious NBA, Stevens is reminding everyone expert coaching and people skills translate to any level. He's enjoying himself, his players enjoy him, and the Boston fans are enjoying the Celtics' playoff push, which following Saturday's 93-89 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse has them tied with Miami for ninth in the Eastern Conference, one-half game back of Charlotte and one game back of the Pacers.
The Celtics are doing this with a young team. Brandon Bass is the only member of the regular rotation with more than four years of NBA experience. They're also doing it with an injured team. Jared Sullinger, who was averaging 14.4 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds, is out for the season with a fractured foot and super sub Isaiah Thomas, who's averaged 21.4 points since coming in a trade, is out temporarily with a bruised lower back. And, they're doing it with a team shaken by roster moves. Twenty-four players have suited up this season, making chemistry that much more of a challenge.
There's little evidence of Stevens missing much about the college game. He misses Butler and his friends in Indianapolis, but he can make friends anywhere. He surely doesn't miss the hours and frustrations that go into recruiting, and he embraces the challenges unique to the NBA.
“There are so many great opportunities here every single night,” he said before Saturday's game. “The opportunity to compete against the best and get off the mat and do it night after night. If you act like you're tired you're in trouble and you have to fight through it. It's been a great challenge.
“It's also fun because we're progressing. When you're running in mud, it's not as fun, but when you're making moves and running forward you feel pretty good about it.”
Boston is moving forward, having won nine of its last 12 games, and here's the irony. The thing Stevens does indeed miss about coaching in college is the preparation time before games. His team, however, doesn't reflect that longing. It's 9-5 in the second game of back-to-back sets this season, and has won seven of its last eight. (It's record in the opening game of back-to-backs is 6-8.) Saturday's victory over the Pacers was perhaps the most impressive, being its fifth game in seven days and coming over a team that had won seven in a row.
How is this happening?
“Probably because I don't have time to prepare,” he said. “It takes me out of it. I'm probably the problem with days to prepare.”
No, it's a matter of emphasis. Stevens has made winning the second of back-to-back games a matter of pride since he took over the Celtics, and the players have absorbed his preparation.
“It was kind of something we hung our hat on,” he said. “I guess you can call it a building block.”
Stevens' coaching fingerprints were all over Saturday's game. Boston's defense forced the Pacers into 17 turnovers and allowed just nine fastbreak points, 15 free throw attempts and 40 percent shooting from the field. Good shots were difficult to find, because Boston's big men successfully defended the pick-and-rolls and jammed the ballhandlers.
It all was crystallized on one crucial play with 3:15 left in the game, when the Pacers trailed by four points, but committed a shot clock violation because George Hill couldn't get off a shot against two defenders in the corner of the floor.
All that in the second half of a back-to-back.
“Coach does a great job keeping us prepared,” said Celtics center Tyler Zeller, who finished with 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting. “He keeps it short in the morning and allows us to get a lot of sleep, but he gives us the information we need for every game.”
The Pacers had no choice but to tip their collective hat.
“Great defense,” coach Frank Vogel said. “We tried to show our guys a lot of video today on their ball pressure. We didn't handle it very well.”
“Coach Stevens got them in a great defensive plan,” Hill said. “They play extremely hard and they made it tough for us on the offensive end.”
“They just took us out of some stuff,” David West said. “And they're a difficult team to defend. They spread guys out all over the floor.”
Evan Turner had instigated a minor dust-up in Boston on Friday when he said after the Celtics' win over Orlando that Stevens had been so angry with his team's play at halftime that he banned food from the flight to Indianapolis. It wasn't true, and Stevens made light of it before Saturday's game. Stevens had gone off on his players, though, using “a couple of adjectives I don't normally use.” His team responded with a comeback that produced a seven-point win, led by Turner's 30-point effort.
Which just proves a couple of points: Stevens isn't always supernaturally nice, and NBA players will listen. Stevens likes that, too.
“Most every player wants to be the best they can be, so they'll accept being coached,” Stevens said. “We have an unbelievable group from the standpoint of being coached. I don't see much difference (between the NBA and college). I think it's all about who's on your team and how connected you are.”
The Celtics are connected. Stevens is happy in Boston. IU does not have a coaching opening. For now, that will have to be the end of the story.
Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at email@example.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.