Brad Stevens’ postgame press conference couldn’t have started any better.
In the moments following his team’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Boston Celtics head coach was given one right on a tee.
“Without getting yourself fined, what did you think of the officiating tonight?” a reporter asked Stevens after a game in which Boston was whistled for 26 personal fouls.
Calmly, Stevens responded, “You won’t hear me complain about officials.”
The reporter tried to ask a second question, but Stevens wouldn’t allow for it.
“They have a really hard job, and they do a tremendous job, night in and night out. I’ve got nothing bad to say, nothing but nice things.”
Anyone who watched Monday night knows “nice things” weren’t warranted. The officiating slowed the contest down and disrupted its rhythm. In a 48-minute basketball game, there were a combined 49 fouls and 59 free throws.
The referees were terrible … for both teams.
But it’s not Stevens’ style to blame officiating — or anything other than his team’s play or his own coaching. In refusing to even acknowledge officiating as a potential issue, Stevens made it clear to his team: We’re not making excuses. We have to get better, and it will be through our play, not by lobbying officials.
When you wonder why a team like the Celtics is able to erase so many seemingly insurmountable differences over the course of an entire season, it’s because Stevens sets the tone with statements like that.
Later in the press conference, he did it again, controlling the message and the narrative while declining to harp on the negatives or publicly criticize his team.
“It’s best two out of three to go to the NBA Finals,” Stevens said with the hint of a smile. “I mean, ultimately, anybody who didn’t think this was going to be tough — I mean, everything is tough. In this deal, it’s a blast to have to grit your teeth, get up the mat and go after it again. That’s part of it. That’s what part of makes the guys on both sides special. That’s what part of what makes the Western Conference teams special. They’re able to block out everything that doesn’t matter and go compete.
“And that’s what we’ll do.”
The Celtics, who lost by 30 in Game 3 and were down as many as 19 in Game 4, could be returning to Boston with their heads hanging, complaining about the officiating. In the span of just a few minutes Monday night, though, Stevens publicly flipped that narrative, presumably after doing so privately, too. In Stevens’ mind, the Celtics aren’t returning to Boston reeling. They’re going home with an opportunity to be great.
Given the Celtics’ youth and injuries, it’s imperative Stevens pushes the right buttons. Going home — where Boston is 9-0 this postseason — undoubtedly will help, but the coach’s message of mental toughness and perseverance shouldn’t be lost, either.