BOSTON — Brad Stevens The Mad Basketball Scientist turned into Brad Stevens Survival Mode at the very end of last season.
All the best-laid plans, and meticulously concocted lineups, formed over 10 months were shredded and spoiled through a series of injuries and attrition. By Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, Stevens was all out of counter moves and adjustments, and was simply left hoping that making a few more 3-pointers and wringing out a couple of more drops of grit would get the Celtics over the hump and into the NBA Finals.
“When we were playing in the playoffs last year,” he said prior to Friday’s practice at the Auerbach Center, “we probably didn’t have as many curveballs that we could throw. Not only did we have a number of guys out, we didn’t have enough to decide whether somebody was inactive or not.”
This year — at least to start the season — Stevens is back in the hardwood laboratory. He has as many potent potions as he’s ever had at his disposal in his coaching career. And he plans to mix and match all of them throughout the season.
“Anytime you have more depth,” the coach said, “you have more options. The other side is when you don’t have it everyone knows what they’re going to get to do every night. That’s the challenging part. We’re all empathetic to that. At the same time, the main thing is the main thing, and that’s to win the game.”
Stevens said he has a “really good idea about how we’ll do it” when it comes to the starting lineup and main bench rotation to start the season. But he added that lineup could change “game to game, could be half to half” based on health, matchups and even effectiveness.
“He’s just good at knowing what people like to do,” Celtics forward Gordon Hayward said, “what their strengths are, how they can be successful for their team. He’s able to put them in spots so they do that, so they can play to their strengths. It sound pretty simple. But he’s really good at that.”
One player Stevens will have to be especially cognizant of doing that with to start the year is Hayward. The All-Star has already had to shut it down for almost a week in the preseason due to back soreness, which he said was related to the comeback from a dislocated ankle and fractured left leg that cost him all but the first five minutes of last season.
Hayward said on Friday that while his back is feeling better, and his body is adjusting to the rigors of the NBA game, there may be times when he has to slow it down for the greater good.
“As a competitor,” he said, “I want to be able to do everything. We’ll see. Like I’ve already found out, sometimes that’s just not the case and you have to dial it back a little bit.
"That's one way we're gong to utilize our depth. Not just if people are having off nights, but if people are physically struggling, or need to take a break."
Stevens will also have to manage how much he can go with his smaller lineups — including the expected starting five of Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Hayward and Irving — and how much he’ll need the size and paint protection of Aron Baynes on the floor. Stevens said on Tuesday that it’s “concerning” when you don’t have your best defensive players on the floor, which for the Celtics would include Marcus Morris, Marcus Smart and Baynes, and that you have to get them on the floor if others can’t raise their offensive games to compensate.
It all means that a team that has preached sacrifice and accepting roles coming into training camp will have to show it is willing to do just that when Stevens sits or scales back players who have been NBA starters, and even All-Stars, in the recent past.
“We just have to do the best that we can making sure that we’re all moving in one direction,” the coach said, “we’re all on the same page, and we recognize again that some nights are going to be our nights, some nights are going to be other guys’ nights.
“But, collectively, we can have a good team if we keep the course.”