Stevens guides undermanned Celtics to conference final

Brad Stevens made a name for himself coaching an unheralded Butler team to the Final Four in consecutive NCAA tournaments, and now he’s doing the same thing in the NBA with the Boston Celtics. Boston wasn’t supposed to make the Eastern Conference Final with its two best players relegated to injury reserve, but Stevens figured out a way to slow down the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers enough to guide his ragtag lineup to the third round of the postseason, where they will face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Philadelphia was the trendy pick to win the East following the first round, having finished the regular season on a lengthy winning streak. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were both active for the 76ers in the second round, but their star power didn’t matter against the Celtics, who saw breakout performances from the likes of Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum, as well as some savvy veteran play from Al Horford. Thanks to the defensive schemes and offensive plays drawn up by Stevens, Boston was able to neutralize Philadelphia’s top talent and take firm control of the series from the opening tip.

Game 1 was a 117-101 deconstruction, where the Celtics defense rendered the 76ers’ perimeter shooting ineffective and never trailed after the first quarter. Philadelphia led by 22 points in the second quarter of Game 2, but Boston had already erased that deficit by the midpoint of the third quarter. Game 3 required some last-second heroics by Horford, who slipped behind the 76ers’ defense on an inbounds pass play drawn up by Stevens and scored the game-winning layup with 5.5 seconds remaining in overtime. Game 4 was Philadelphia’s only victory in the series as Simmons and Embiid produced massive efforts to avoid being swept, and Boston finished the series at home in Wednesday’s Game 5 with 25 points from Tatum and 24 from Jaylen Brown.

Boston’s young cast of reserve players and fill-ins has impressed all season. Gordon Hayward’s gruesome injury in the season opener and Kyrie Irving’s season-ending knee surgery in April were both seen as signs the Celtics would have to wait until next season to make a playoff run, but it has instead allowed recent high draft picks like Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart to flourish in Stevens’ system. Considering the way Boston outperformed expectations all season, Stevens seemed likely to receive some consideration for coach of the year, but he didn’t receive a single vote, with Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey winning the award.

Casey and the Raptors were swept from the postseason by Cleveland as James once again showed why his teams have represented the East in the finals seven years running. Containing James is essentially an impossible task, but Boston can stand a chance if they prevent other Cavaliers players from finding a scoring rhythm. Toronto allowed Kevin Love and Kyle Korver to have big games when Cleveland needed it, and it will be up to Stevens to neutralize them with Boston’s team defense when the series begins on Sunday.