Tyronn Lue’s forthright tone has us scratching our heads yet again before, eventually, coming around in time to notice what he’s on about. The Cleveland Cavaliers coach, set to possibly send his team to its third consecutive NBA Finals with a win in Boston in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals on Thursday, baffled NBA observers this week in relaying the idea that the Brad Stevens-coached Boston Celtics were somehow tougher to guard than the looming, 120-point mad Golden State Warriors.
This this from a coach who made waves earlier in spring by trying to sell support of his claim that coaching these Cavaliers was “the hardest job, by far” in the whole of the NBA.
This from the coach of the NBA’s defending champions, as well, someone who probably has a better bead on those two subjects than any. When asked if he was already fretting in anticipation of the task of staying in front of the league’s best offense, as the Warriors await the winners of the East, Lue drew the conversation back to Massachusetts:
“We’re just focused on Boston. The stuff they’re running, it’s harder to defend than Golden State’s [offense] for me, as far as the actions and all the running around and all the guys who are making all the plays, so it’s a totally different thing.”
The Boston Celtics worked without a healthy Isaiah Thomas in Games 1 and 2, prior to C’s ruling their 29-points per game star out for the postseason with a badly injured hip. The team ranked eighth in offense during the regular season, and they’ve shot up to fifth out of 16 teams in the postseason after working against lacking defensive clubs from Chicago and Washington in the first two rounds, prior to taking on the Cavaliers.
Lue continued. From ESPN’s Dave McMenamin:
“Like, they hit the post, Golden State runs splits and all that stuff, but these guys are running all kinds of s—,” Lue said of Boston coach Brad Stevens’ schemes. “I’ll be like, ‘F—.’ They’re running all kinds of s—, man. And Brad’s got them moving and cutting and playing with pace, and everybody is a threat. It’s tough, you know, it’s tough.”
Boston has played exceedingly well offensively in its two games worked without Isaiah, barely turning the ball over while relying on crisp movement and the hope for a great finish (in most of Game 3, the shots fell; Game 4’s touch was less reliable). Comparing any sort of squad, however, with the Golden State team that won the offense title by a mile and a half in 2016-17, averaging nearly 116 points per game while featuring the NBA’s last three MVPs (reminder: Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant didn’t earn any votes for stellar defense) seems like a massive, massive jump.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr doesn’t roll the ball out, either. He insists on the same alacrity and insistence as Brad Stevens and hopes for, with his merry band of turnover flingers, a semblance of responsibility. Kerr’s offense is a long time coming, his years as a broadcaster were mostly spent fulfilling with his obsession at filling his notebook’s folders with an unending series of expert offensive and defensive schemes.
At around the same time, Butler Bulldog coach Brad Stevens said his NBA TV nights were limited to irregular viewings of Utah’s Gordon Hayward, via League Pass.
That’s what he aw-shucked us with after being asked about the pro scene while still in his last years at Butler, at least, prior to his jump to the Celtics in 2013. At the time, however, Hayward wasn’t buying the idea that Stevens would have agreed to such a deal without some knowledge of what was about hit next:
“Man, in my opinion, he’s extremely prepared,” Hayward said. “He does his research on guys and knows what he’s doing before the ball even goes up. If they make an adjustment, he’s already decided in his mind what he’s going to do. If that doesn’t work, he has a backup plan for that and then a backup plan for that.
“That’s why he’s so poised. He’s done his work early. He knows basketball that well. He’s played it his whole life and he’s a student of the game. He knows it inside and out.
“He knows what he’s doing. He realizes everything that everybody is saying about it, the challenge that he’s going to face. It doesn’t matter. He’ll be successful wherever he’s at.”
That’s the current swirl behind Stevens, acknowledgment that has been in place for years, typified by the mainstream media attention paid to his dandy work out of “after time out” (ATO) plays. The designation, you’d be shocked to learn, fits quite nicely within Twitter’s 140 character limits.
“He’s very good out of ATOs,” James said. “He has so many different wrinkles, misdirection. [You’re] thinking the ball is going this way, he has a misdirection going the other way. You’ve got to kind of keep your head on a swivel. He has a lot of packages. So you can plan for a few, but then he might run something you’ve never seen before.”
“Brad’s a genius,” said Gerald Green, who signed with Boston for the veterans minimum in the summer, played sparingly and emerged as a key playoff contributor in the Chicago series. “I said it — he’s one of the reasons why I came here. I’ve always heard about his really, really, really high IQ of knowing the game. He’s a genius.”
Boston’s Celtics can’t touch the Warriors in terms of actual output, but the team whips the W’s in terms of passes made, keeping its lead up from the regular season. This sort of frenzy can’t help but delight the punters, who also note that some of the team’s outsized gestalt-leanings stats came mostly through games played with Isaiah Thomas dominating the ball.
(Or so we thought!)
For a while, in this league, Brad Stevens will be the best coach in the NBA for as long as he wants to be. The plaudits can wear on reader, though. Passes and especially assists (Scott Skiles teams get plenty of assists) hardly straighten the line toward expert offensive ratings, and ATO brilliance on a national stage is nothing new.
Some of the most-loathed coaches of the NBA’s deadball era, between Michael Jordan’s retirement after 1998 and the abolishment of hand-check rules in 2004, were absolute masters at drawing up expert plays out of timeouts. The success rate, especially in an 84-79 game, was far more noticeable if significantly less inspiring to watch.
That’s what Stevens is doing, in an era perfectly suited for quick re-winds, cuts, and re-issuing within seconds on social media. He’s kicking ass and, thanks to an emerging NBA culture that has spent the last decade noticing these things, fans are realizing as much in real or nearly-there time. His work is more than enough reason to either check into NBA Twitter during actual games, or to swear off the machine outright during live action.
Whatever your reaction, Stevens still provided Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue with his two toughest nights of the season in Games 3 and 4, and one can expect Lue will have to prepare for just as much on Thursday night in Game 5. Brad Stevens’ work with his Celtics has been superb and worth every printed word thus far, in (some) ways that probably make a Steph Curry/Kevin Durant screen and roll look anachronistic by comparison.
(Of course, Lue’s only coached against the injury-limited Curry from last season, and a Warriors team still settling into its ways during the regular season. That’s a discussion for another June.)
Tyronn Lue isn’t trying to awaken his sometimes-somnambulant Cavs prior to what could be a letdown game with comments like these. He’s not trying to disarm critics ahead of what could be more questions about how, exactly, the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics put up 110 points against the Cavs in Game 5. Boston’s strong showing in Games 2 and 3 didn’t come because of bugs or boredom, the Celtics just played damn good basketball on both sides of the court. Lue recognizes exactly what’s going on.
With a win in Game 5, the Celtics could draw a little closer toward making any such comparisons invalid, or impossible. This team still has a chance, however slight, to make it so the Cavs won’t ever see those Warriors. Not in 2016-17, at least.
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