The Brad Stevens era does not officially begin for another three weeks — until the ball goes up at 7 p.m. on Oct. 30, the official ledger will say Stevens never coached a game in the NBA — but what amounts to the pre-Stevens era finally opens Monday night at TD Garden.
For the first time in a long time, Boston fans glued to a Red Sox playoff game will also have reason to flip over to a Celtics preseason game during commercials. Inquisitive minds will look for clues into Stevens’ potential lineup combinations, intended offensive and defensive approaches and overall sideline demeanor.
Do not read too much into most of Stevens’ actions in this single exhibition game against the Raptors, however. Even if it is Stevens’ first game on an NBA bench, it is still a preseason game. The former Butler coach will be feeling things out, just like fellow NBA rookies Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey. That will make Monday’s game, and the preseason as a whole, rather unique for the Celtics.
The Celtics became accustomed under Doc Rivers to using the preseason as a chance to figure things out roster-wise. The departed coach juggled his substitution patterns to get a glimpse into how new players operated with the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. That was how Rivers figured out Brandon Bass might be able to step into the starting lineup in 2011-12 and Jared Sullinger deserved earlier playing time last season than Rivers usually is comfortable giving to most rookies.
Stevens and his assistant coaches will surely be looking for the same things, but with the added challenge of getting Stevens up to speed on the basics of professional coaching. While much is made of the cultural adjustment from college to the pros, lots of first-time NBA coaches have gotten hung up on rotational issues. Vinny Del Negro never grasped how to get his optimal five-player lineup on the floor in Chicago or Los Angeles, and Ty Corbin often seems to forget to put his best players into games for long, crucial stretches.
Futhermore, former Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau still has not realized that grinding his players into dust during the 82-game regular season leaves them battered and fatigued for the playoffs. Then again, if Stevens ends up having a fraction of the success Thibodeau has had with the Bulls, the Celtics will gladly take it.
Frequently swapping players on and off the court, without disrupting momentum and rhythm, is not as simple or straightforward as it seems. For any of Stevens’ celebrated X’s and O’s expertise to be relevant, the players themselves need to be comfortable to operate. They need to have some semblance of an idea how long their shifts typically last, who they will be teamed with most often and how long a leash they will be given when things go well.
Imagine being a baseball batter uncertain if the manager will yank you for a pinch hitter if you get to two strikes. You tense up from the first pitch, because you know that strike one puts you halfway to the bench, so you expand your strike zone, swing at bad pitches and miss good pitches because you are anxious. That’s the feeling a basketball player gets when he is unsure of his coach’s substitution pattern. If he runs a play well three straight times, will the coach let him run it again or take him out because the time on the clock says it is time to put in the next unit, or does he let the flow of the game play out? The Celtics’ players will be highly interested in the answer to questions like that in the next eight games.
More accomplished coaches than Stevens have failed in the NBA because they never figured out how to maximize not just lineups, but also how and when to utilize them — or when to put away the advanced data and let what is working keep working. In between pitches of the Red Sox game, watch to see whether the Celtics seem comfortable and energized or hesitant and slow. That, more than anything else likely to happen in Monday’s game, will provide the first clue to whether Stevens is on his way to quick success.