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At this time time last year, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens was preparing his Butler University team for its fifth NCAA tournament appearance in six years.
Wednesday night at TD Garden, the Celtics will face LeBron James and the Heat. Miami is favored to win the NBA title for the third consecutive year, but Stevens and the Celtics will need a miracle to qualify for the playoffs.
A Different Kind of March
In 2010, at the age of 33, Stevens guided Butler to the first of two consecutive NCAA men's championship games. The Bulldogs lost both times. Today, at 37, Stevens is the youngest coach in the NBA. But this March has been more maddening than Madness in Boston. The Celtics have lost seven of nine games as they limp toward the Green's first losing record since the 2006-07 season. After appearing on a panel at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston earlier this month, Stevens said coaching in the NBA has been a big change, but he still sees similarities.
"When I was at Butler, I was there 13 years, I was there through a lot of thick and thin, mostly very, very good times. It was a terrific place to work. I just had unbelievable support and unbelievable leadership," Stevens said. "Come [to Boston], and all of those intangibles are the same, we're just in the midst of trying to get our program better."
Stevens grew up in Indiana and played Division III basketball at DePauw University. As an assistant and later the head coach at Butler in Indianapolis, Stevens helped to build a new tradition of Bulldogs success. Here in Boston, he says the Celtics' long basketball heritage and deeply loyal fans are the things he's enjoyed the most so far.
"Great tradition, this great history. That has made it even more fun," he said. "You know, a lot of people might look at it as more pressure and more difficult, but I think it's more fun because people are really excited about the young guys on our team and where it can go."
A Star Returns
But for much of the season, Stevens was without the player fans wanted to see most. After undergoing knee surgery, point guard and newly named Celtics captain Rajon Rondo didn't play his first game until January. Stevens says it's great having Rondo back, but he's more excited about what's to come.
"When he first came back he was a shell of himself. And now he's getting closer to getting back to his form," Stevens said. "He's still not there yet, but he's a special player. And when you have a special player, you'd rather have him on the floor than not."
Stevens is in the first year of a six-year contract. One of the biggest adjustments has been coaching an 82-game season — more than double a typical college campaign. And the games are longer. College games are 40 minutes. In the NBA they're 48. That means matching up against the world's best players — like Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant — for longer periods of time.
"You've got eight more minutes and a lot more possessions for Kevin Durant to touch the ball, so that presents a heck of a challenge in trying to stop him," Stevens said.
Digging Into The Details
MIT invited Stevens to its sports analytics conference because he's known for his love of in-depth statistical analysis of players and games. At Butler, he created a full-time statistics-driven job on his staff and brought the analyst he hired with him to Boston. In the NBA, Stevens has more data available than he ever had at Butler, so much that he's had to set aside some research projects for the upcoming off-season. But he says crunching numbers only works if players can relate to the results.
"This is a simple game, made more complex by all of us, that we need to try to make it as easy as possible for the guys moving at full speed," Stevens said. "My old boss at Butler used to quote Abraham Lincoln, 'I apologize for the length of this letter, I didn't have time to write a short one.' To be really good at it, you better make it concise."
With just 14 games left in a tough season and a critical NBA draft just around the corner, it's not hard to sum up the Celtics' goals: Pick well. Get better.
Doug Tribou covers sports for WBUR and NPR's Only A Game.
This story aired on March 19, 2014.
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