Even in the quest for adequate rest and rehab time for his players, Stevens has the small issue of playoff form to worry about.
That’s why Celtics coach Brad Stevens had no intention of giving his veterans a break Sunday even though Indiana’s loss to Brooklyn assured the Celtics of the fourth seed and homecourt advantage against the Pacers.
“No, we’re planning on playing regardless,” said the Celtics coach. “We’re not paying attention to that tonight. We want to feel good about how we’re playing, we want to play together, we want to play with purpose, we haven’t beat these guys yet this year. First of all they’re very good, they’re very well-coached. This is a heck of a challenge for us. We’re not focused on Indiana or anyone else today.”
After Jaylen Brown was cleared to play Sunday night against Orlando after missing the previous three games with back spasms, and Terry Rozier was cleared after leaving Friday’s game in Indianapolis with a stomach bug, Stevens had a rarity on his hands.
Though Jayson Tatum left the game for good with a left thigh contusion six minutes into the first quarter, the Celtics coach had a team near complete health.
“I just think we’re in good shape. Like, as far as the guys that needed the most time, over the course of time, have gotten it, organically,” the Celtics coach said of this season’s preservation program, which focused especially on veterans like Al Horford, Kyrie Irving and Marcus Morris.
“They’ve gotten it through injuries and through nicks and bruises, or in Al’s case, a couple weeks off earlier in the season with the knee,” said Stevens. “In Gordon (Hayward’s) case, unfortunately, the ankle and the concussion. In Kyrie’s case, all kinds of different little things, but nothing major, and I think that all those guys are in good shape, as well as our other guys. Jaylen’s gotten some time right there, which isn’t fun, because it’s never fun to have your back thrown out. But he seems to be better and should be getting healthy.”
Signs of progress
Contrary to what was expected to be their strength this season, the Celtics did not live up to their reputation defensively this season.
There have, though, been recent signs of improvement on that end of the floor, most notably during their four wins over the last nine days against Indiana and Miami.
“We have to be good defensively first and foremost,” said Hayward. “So we have to make sure we know their tendencies, executing our defensive game plan so everybody’s on the same page, transition defense is huge. And when we do that we give ourselves a chance to get good shots on the offensive end – fast breaks, open threes, we don’t always have to go against a set defense. So I think it starts defensively.”
Stevens, though, can still see some cracks in his coverage.
“I thought our execution against Indiana was not as good as a week ago against Indiana,” he said. “I thought we played physically, I thought we played tough. I thought we made a few mistakes against them again. We need to be better than that. As you get into the playoffs, the physicality and effort is an absolute non-negotiable. Otherwise you get blasted. And then the details help you win games and move on. We need to get better at that.
“One of the things I’ve learned in my time here is it’s not about how you’re playing or what you did yesterday, but how you play tonight,” said Stevens. “Nobody’s been playing hotter than these guys, so we have to focus on doing tonight what we can to be successful. Much easier said than done. But these guys are playing really well. They’re a super-physical, really tough team. We have to play a possession-to-possession game, which we did a better job of the last few games.”