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Bucky Gleason: Celtics coach Stevens deserves place among NBA's best

This is hardly worth the heated debate generated by LeBron vs. Michael or Tiger vs. Jack or even Yanny vs. Laurel, but it is worth mentioning that Brad Stevens belonged somewhere in the discussion about the NBA's best coaches – unless NBA coaches were the ones having the discussion.

Stevens guided the Celtics to 55 victories this season, second-most in the Eastern Conference despite losing prized free agent Gordon Hayward to a horrific broken leg about five minutes into the season opener. Kyrie Irving has been done for the year since suffering a season-ending knee injury in March.

And yet when the National Basketball Coaches Association voted for the top coach this season, Toronto's Dwayne Casey was the winner in a landslide. No problem with the result. Casey steered the Raptors to the best record in the conference. He also was fired after Cleveland swept Toronto in the playoffs.

This isn't a Casey vs. Stevens issue, anyway. Seven other coaches also received votes: Philadelphia's Brett Brown and Indiana's Nate McMillan in the East and San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, Houston's Mike D'Antoni, Utah's Quin Snyder, Portland's Terry Stotts and L.A. Clippers' Doc Rivers in the West.

Casey also could win Coach of the Year when results are revealed in a vote among NBA writers. It's important to note that coaches had one vote for one coach while writers pick their top three in a points system. Stevens is expected to be in contention for the award decided by writers.

But he didn't get a single vote from his peers even though he spent the season outsmarting them, as he has Tyronn Lue in the Eastern Conference finals series against the Cavaliers.

OK, so Cleveland responded Saturday night with a lopsided victory, as you knew it would, after losing the first two games in Boston. The Cavs' win was less about coaching and more about LeBron, who wasn't going to allow his team to get swept in their own building. They showed up and came away with a resounding 116-86 victory.

It was bound to happen.

Stevens sensed the inevitable after Cleveland took a 16-point lead in the first 8 1/2 minutes, when he refused to call a timeout to settle his troops and interrupt the Cavs' momentum until 2:16 remained in the first quarter. The Celts were down 20 at the half. He may very well have allowed his team to get buried, knowing they had a slim chance of coming back on that night in that building.

His reaction, or lack thereof, could have been a stroke of brilliance when looking at the big picture.

"I don't want to take away from what they did," Stevens told the media Sunday in Cleveland. "I don't think that's fair. There are two teams out there. It's not just somebody trying to get a project done by themselves. There's a physical component to it, and they won that. Hats off to them."

The result reaffirmed his message to his team about playing with utmost intensity while trusting the Celtics would respond and come away better from a well-placed defeat. For them, it was nothing more than a clunker against a desperate team, a performance best tossed into the garbage can and set ablaze. Rest assured the 41-year-old coach, in his fifth season, will have his team ready for Game Four.

Stevens' story has been well-documented, how a puzzle-loving kid combined his intellect with basketball. He grew up in Indiana, played Division III ball at DePauw, graduated with a degree in economics, abandoned his business career and worked his way from college volunteer assistant to the head coach at Butler.

Danny Ainge took a gamble when he hired a midmajor college coach to take over the most storied team in NBA history. Ainge looked past the lack of NBA experience and embraced Stevens' calm demeanor and intellect, his ability to make adjustments on the fly and his knack for drawing up plays that work more times than not.

Coaches are often measured by what happens after a timeout. The Celtics were fourth in the NBA with 1.18 points per possession after timeouts this season, largely because Stevens often was two or three moves ahead of his peers. He has been known to design plays that forced numerous switches on defense to get the mismatch he wanted.

Popovich has been so good for so long that we're accustomed to assuming he's the best coach. The Spurs struggled without Kawhi Leonard, as most teams would. The Celtics kept winning after losing 40 percent of their starting lineup. They were 7-2 in their first nine games after Irving, their leading scorer, was shut down in March.

Stevens refused to make excuses and instead found ways to maximize his roster. He empowered his younger players while developing young stars Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. The Celtics were the top-rated defensive team in the NBA during the regular season.

It's no wonder why players on opposing teams, including LeBron and Kevin Love in this series, have gone out of their way to shower Stevens with praise. No matter how their compliments were intended, there was a sense other players wished they had a coach with the same acumen.

What happens next in the Celts-Cavs series is anybody's guess. LeBron is one player, perhaps the only one, who can carry a team through the playoffs. The fact he has played in the NBA finals the past seven years is no coincidence. He's the best player in the game today and could be the best ever.

The Cavs, who were 17 of 34 from 3-point range, aren’t likely to maintain the defensive intensity and accuracy from the perimeter they showed in Game Three. NBA teams have built 2-0 leads in best-of-seven series exactly 300 times in history and have won 281 times. Stevens knows numbers. The odds are stacked in his favor.

Any coach would agree.

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