BOSTON — At 51 years old, Brett Brown can’t claim to be the baby when he coaches against Brad Stevens. Looking even more youthful than his 37 years, Stevens is the NBA’s youngest head coach and the closest thing his profession has to a wunderkind.
Brown isn’t exactly an old codger, though. The first-year head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers spent Wednesday morning taking a jog around the city, where he played in college at Boston University, and riffed as easily with young bloggers as with hardened newpaper reporters before his team’s game against the Boston Celtics.
But coaching a young basketball team can be a little like being president, in that young guys can transform into old guys in the blink of an eye.
After Brown’s Sixers missed six out of 10 free throws down the stretch, necessitating a buzzer-beating floater by Evan Turner as time expired to earn a 95-94 victory over the Boston Celtics, Turner had some fun at the expense of Brown’s rapidly whitening hair follicles.
“It’s huge that we pulled through and came back after giving up the lead,” Turner said. “At the same time, we’ve got to finish off those free throws and make it easy on us. Coach Brown, when he took the job, was kind of a sandy blonde, but now he’s a gray-haired man.”
If the Sixers (15-31) are making Brown age fast, the Celtics (15-33) will leave Stevens decrepit by the end of the season. The loss dropped the Celtics into sole possession of last place in the Atlantic Division, which is quite the accomplishment in a field that includes just one team above .500. Boston has lost 19 of its last 22 games and is just 2-15 in 2014.
Still, Stevens insists he’s not getting down. The players are disappointed enough in themselves, he said, without him piling on.
“You can’t let your circumstances control your thoughts,” Stevens told his players after the gut-wrenching defeat, in which his team battled back from a 14-point deficit to lead by eight points with eight minutes remaining. “You have to make your thoughts improve your circumstances. Everybody wants something, but we have to make small tweaks and changes to get something. And that’s the hard part, getting guys to do that after a dispiriting loss. It’s my job to try to be contagious in being that way.”
Kris Humphries isn’t letting the losing dog him, either. He’s a cool cat who won’t fish for false bravado. He just wants be a guinea pig as the Celtics try out new ways to get wins.
Does that sound weird? Well, not as weird as Humphries’ answer to how players stay positive as losses mount.
“If you have animals, you go home, hang out with them and spend time with family,” Humphries said. “You focus on your hobby when you’re not practicing. When you are practicing, you practice hard and get ready for the next game.”
So, there’s your answer, struggling teams of the world: pets. Pets always make you feel better. Pets and hobbies. It may sound nonsensical, but Humphries did tip in the go-ahead basket with 42 seconds left that almost gave Boston the win. So he must know what he’s talking about.
Jared Sullinger has been the Celtics’ best player for the bulk of the season, and he was again on Wednesday. Despite an inefficient 9-for-25 shooting night, Sullinger contributed 24 points and 17 rebounds to the Celtics’ cause. He wasn’t alone in clanking away, either, as the Celtics shot 37 percent from the field as a team.
Lately, however, Sullinger has not been the force he was in the first two months of the season. He is averaging just 10.8 points on 37 percent shooting in January, both season-worsts. His offensive rating has bottomed below 100 points per 100 possessions for the first time this season, and he’s committed more fouls in 17 games this month (64) than he did in 17 games in November (50).
The drop-off led to a meeting with Stevens, who approached his budding franchise player by putting the recent difficulties in context.
“I did say, ‘Hey, I realize you’re playing through the [bruised] hand and the [dislocated] finger,’ because he’s a tough guy,” Stevens said. “He wants to play. He likes to play. I value that and think highly of him for that.”
Just because Stevens understood, however, he wasn’t going to lower his expectations.
“One of the things I challenged him on is not just accepting that he’s a 22-year-old in this league,” Stevens said. “We’re in a unique situation in that we’re asking some of our young guys to be leaders and more vocal in their approach. My talking point with him was, I know you’re 22, but you’re a mature basketball player. You know the game. For our team to grow, we need for you to continue to play and be a few years ahead of where you are. It’s not fair to him, but it’s a great opportunity for him.”
The ceiling remains high for Sullinger, who hasn’t seemed particularly pleased with his performance, even after good games. From the looks of it, he has placed the bar as high as Stevens has, if not higher. He’s on his way to being years ahead of where he should be. The rest of the Celtics need only follow.