As painful as it is for me to write anything laudatory about the Boston Celtics, they are a very good, well-coached team. The common refrain, given that they’re missing their best two players, is that they have been performing above expectations. However, that may be unfair, as Zach Lowe’s article, “Brad Stevens and the Celtics have a special brand of toughness,” explains.
Brad Stevens, Boston’s brilliant coach, cited the following definition of “toughness”:
Toughness is being able to physically and emotionally perform your task through any condition.
and added (emphasis mine):
If things are going really well in a home game, do you get caught up in that, or do you keep playing the right way? If things are going like they were in the second quarter last night [when the Sixers went on a run], do you say, “I have a job to do and I’m going to do it, and I don’t care that everyone is going nuts over this [Joel] Embiid dunk?” That is toughness. It sounds cliché, but the hardest thing to do is stay in the moment and do your job.
This is a fierce team. No one is afraid to shoot, or venture outside his proven skill set — something almost everyone has had to do since [Kyrie] Irving’s knee surgery. They give maximum effort every second. It is a focused effort; they rarely veer out of scheme.
Gather enough tough players and it can have an exponential effect on a team’s collective toughness. They inspire each other to more intense fury. They hold everyone accountable; even brief moments of lethargy and weakness are unacceptable. Wyc Grousbeck, the team’s owner, compares them to a crew team rowing together: They feel when one guy is giving only 90 percent, and either push him harder or eventually replace him. “This is my favorite Celtics team ever, in terms of energy, camaraderie and underdog spirit,” Grousbeck said.
[Danny] Ainge picks the players, but Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. The (deserved) fawning over his stoic demeanor and play-calling genius has obscured another fundamental truth: Stevens is something of an old-school hard-ass. “If guys aren’t doing their jobs,” [Al] Horford said, “they just won’t play.”
Kevin Durant makes a similar point in Baxter Holmes’s article about the Golden State Warriors, “When The Dubs Hit The Turbo Button”:
That’s what is tough about the NBA — to focus every possession. That’s hard as s— to do. It’s not the physical part. It’s not making 3s. It’s not how many sets can we run, how many dunks can we get. It’s about staying focused every play.
I’ve written before (in a non-sports context) about the importance of constant striving and execution (versus strategy) to high-performance. It’s a theme that seems to come up over and over and over again in sports as well.
Here are more gems from Lowe’s article on Brad Stevens’s leadership style and the culture he’s created in Boston.
In Boston’s seventh game of the season, Shane Larkin failed to pursue a loose ball along the left sideline. Stevens removed Larkin at the next stoppage. He didn’t play again until garbage time. “I learned right away,” Larkin said. “If you don’t get a 50-50 ball, you are coming out.”
Stevens didn’t upbraid Larkin. He approached him calmly and told Larkin why he had been taken out. In evaluating players, both during games and in film sessions, Stevens is careful with language, according to coaches, players and team higher-ups. He focuses on actions: We didn’t get this rebound. You should have made this rotation earlier. The criticism is never about the player’s character. No one is labeled lazy or stupid or selfish. Stevens simply describes what did or did not happen, and what should happen next time.
That has gone a long way in securing buy-in, players say. They feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them — and himself — to almost impossible standards. That is a hard balance to strike. It is not a show, either.
After losses, Stevens often approaches Ainge and apologizes for “blowing it,” Ainge said. “He is always saying that,” Ainge said. “Honestly, it’s kind of like listening to players blame themselves. He’s like a player. He never whines about the players, just himself.”
Even private kvetching about players among coaches and front-office staff can undo a team. Rumors start. Factions develop. That hasn’t happened in Boston.
There are no bells and whistles to Boston’s culture. They don’t regularly host famous guest speakers or take field trips. They’ll organize occasional team dinners, but there are no ritualistic, hours-long nights of wine, food and storytelling. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created an environment of serious, hard, consistent work.
Stevens essentially has banned rookie hazing. He wants rookies to take as much ownership of the team as the stars — and to voice their opinions. (This is the same reason Stevens declines to name captains.) Pranks waste time. He was not thrilled last season when culprits unknown filled Brown’s car with popcorn. “Oh, Brad was not happy,” Brown said. “He had my back.”
“I’m kinda glad,” Tatum said of the hazing restrictions. “I don’t want popcorn in my car. I would flip.”