Brad Stevens has spent the last eight months trying to figure this collection of talent out. He sensed something wasn’t right with them as early as the preseason, becoming one of the few coaches I can remember who called out their squad for a lack of effort in an exhibition contest.
While he has managed to steady the ship towards the tail end of the regular season and the first round, Mike Budenholtzer has won the head-to-head coaching battle convincingly since Game 1. Stevens started the series on a high note by inserting Marcus Morris into the starting five, but things have gone downhill from there as the Bucks made necessary tweaks.
Morris has remained one of the Celtics best players in this series and the starting lineup that Stevens commissioned is actually outscoring the Bucks by 13 points over the past four games. They have been doing their job at the start of each half but ever since Game 1, the rest of the Celtics lineups have not. Budenholtzer has made the right adjustments by inserting more shooters into the lineup alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, leaning heavily on his backcourt reserves through their hot hands (George Hill, Pat Connaughton) and committing to switching regularly on the defensive end, a stark contrast to their usual playing style that the Celtics haven't found an answer for.
Stevens has attempted to counter these moves but nothing he has gone with is working consistently, a familiar trend for this Celtics team that failed to put together 48 minute efforts all year long. Now, with Boston’s season on the line, no one expects the visitors to put up much of a fight tonight (9.5 point underdogs). Stevens can’t control whether or not the shots fall for this group in a tough road environment, but his willingness to be proactive in Game 5 will set the tone for whether this season ends with some fight or another embarrassing defeat. Where should Stevens focus his efforts? A few areas worth watching.
Stevens has hitched his wagon to his only All-Star all year long, defending him through his off-court trials and tribulations while handing him a bigger share of the minute pie as the season has continued. This mentality made sense prior to the Bucks series given Irving’s superb play on the floor and the need for this team to keep him happy over the long haul heading in to free agency. Of course, Stevens is going to cater to him.
However, as the stakes have been raised, Irving has showcased more of his ugly habits against a Milwaukee team happy to exploit them. The Bucks are daring Irving to take bad shots and he’s done that plenty over the past three games while shooting 30 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3. A shooting slump is understandable but it can’t be accompanied by a lackluster commitment to defense. Stevens saw the same improvisation on film that we’ve been harping on here at BSJ and you can bet Irving calling to switch onto Giannis was not part of the gameplan.
Stevens defended Irving publicly after Game 4, as he should, downplaying the extent of the errors while failing to call him out by name.
“I mean when I left the gym last night before watching the film, I really felt that way,” Stevens said on Tuesday of the switches on Giannis. “I didn’t feel watching it there were as many that really hurt us, I just thought when we did get switched, we didn’t say, ‘Okay, there is a threat, and the biggest threat in the room is the guy with the ball on one of our smalls.’ I think there are times where you have to switch appropriately, but at that time you really have to sell out to his drives and help each other. Obviously, we want to keep size on him as much as possible. I did not think we always did that well in transition and I did not think we always did that well throughout some of their actions. But it wasn’t quite as bad when I went back and reviewed film as I thought in person. There certainly were some bad ones.”
However, with the season on the line,