Success is in the Preparation – Brad Stevens

Chris Mannix, The Vertical Yahoo Sports (

The coach reaches into his suit pocket for the neatly folded paper, opens it, scans it, before folding it up and returning it to its place. He repeats this process every few minutes, every game, until eventually the freshly printed sheet looks like something forgotten at the bottom of a suitcase. Crib sheets are not uncommon among NBA coaches, though few consult them as often as Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Defensive keys, offensive keys, 10-15 plays written, Stevens says, “in my own jargon,” meticulous preparation boiled down to one page.

Preparation. In an era in which information is available in almost inconsumable amounts, Stevens sees it, filters it and utilizes it as well as any coach in the league. That’s what leads to plays like the one that beat Washington on Jan. 16, when Jae Crowder converted a lob pass for a game-winning layup in a situation Stevens predicted could unfold on the bus ride to the arena. Or Avery Bradley’s game-winner against Cleveland on Feb. 5, a possession that appeared busted but one that Celtics players swear played out exactly how Stevens drew it up.

“His capacity to prepare and his will to prepare is as great as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga told The Vertical. “The only other person I’ve been around who is like that is Kevin Garnett. He’s the most prepared coach in the gym in every gym he is in.”

Stevens scoffs at the suggestion his routine is any different than his peers. Forever humble, Stevens refuses to accept the premise. His secret: Being unoriginal. “I don’t think we have ever scored on a play that wasn’t derived from someone else’s,” Stevens said. Other coaches see it. “They run plays where you think, ‘Wait, where have I seen that before,’” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “And then you realize it was one of the best plays another team ran.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey recently commented that a downhill play Boston ran for Isaiah Thomas – in which Thomas began near halfcourt and used his speed to attack the basket – looked like it was plucked from the playbook Toronto ran for Lou Williams last season.

Not so, says Stevens. “I saw [former New Orleans coach] Monty Williams run it for Jrue Holiday at the end of a triple-overtime game against Chicago the year before,” Stevens said. “The way I always wrote it in my notes was ‘NOP.’”

Indeed, Stevens is a sponge. It’s not so much a photographic memory as it is an ability to see a successful play, process it and tuck it away simultaneously. Take the one for Crowder. Days before the game, Stevens suffered a tragedy when Andrew Smith, his former player at Butler, died of cancer. Stevens was scheduled to fly to Indiana for Smith’s funeral after the Washington game. The lob play Stevens predicted on the bus was one he ran for Smith in January 2013, when Butler was in Philadelphia to play La Salle. On Boston’s final possession, Stevens ran the same play for Crowder.

In a way, Smith helped the Celtics win the game.

To Stevens, everyone is a resource. Take Brandon Bass. “He had a great day-to-day approach,” Stevens told The Vertical. “He took care of his body, he worked really hard, he would do whatever you asked him to do on the court; he was just a real pro in that regard.” Or Thad Matta, Stevens’ first boss at Butler, who taught a wide-eyed ex-player with all the answers that he actually didn’t have any of them. Or Todd Lickliter, Matta’s successor, who now scouts for the Celtics. It was Lickliter who empowered Stevens and taught him counter-conventional thinking.

“I’ll never forget this. It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever lived in coaching,” Stevens said. “We had an ultra-competitive [Butler] team in 2003 and we ended up going to the Sweet 16. We had six seniors, and they were tough as nails, ultra-competitive. And we mixed the teams up in a practice in the middle of January just to give them a new juice rather than starters vs. subs.

“The scrimmage ends up 19-19, and [Lickliter] stops practice and ends it. And I mean these guys were pissed. They’re pissed. They are on him, they are on me, I’m on him because I’m coaching one of the teams. He tells them to circle up and stretch, so they go and circle up and stretch. And then I walk over and say, ‘Why’d you stop practice?’ He says, ‘Wait till you see them tomorrow.’

“And they came back the next day and they fought tooth and nail. And so now instead of one good practice we had two great practices, and we had two incredible days to improve. He had a great sense of that stuff, and I’ve never seen anything like that nor had I really looked at coaching in that lens. I think that that’s really helped me.”

In Boston, Stevens, 39 and without a whiff of NBA experience before taking the job, has a roster devoted to him. After two years of turnover, the Celtics have pieced together a solid young core. Stevens has developed Isaiah Thomas into an All-Star, molded Crowder into a valuable two-way forward and turned Evan Turner into an elite sixth man. Stevens is relentlessly positive, just like at Butler, treating players so well, assistant coach Micah Shrewsberry has said that players feel guilty if they don’t play the right way.

As Boston enters the postseason, the value of good coaching has never been higher. Atlanta – where Boston begins its first-round series Saturday – finished the season with an identical record to the Celtics. The Hawks are deep, talented and experienced after last season’s run to the conference finals. Successful fourth-quarter possessions will be at a premium.

Recently, Stevens was asked about Boston’s fourth-quarter execution. There are no wasted words in Celtics huddles. No rah-rah speeches, no shopworn clichés. At Butler, Lickliter often recited a quote, one he attributed to Abraham Lincoln: I apologize for the length of this letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one. Stevens applies its meaning to huddles. “Nobody wants to hear the long, drawn-out version,” Stevens said. “Nobody wants to hear it, and I still work on being concise, but being concise is important.”

So, too, is being successful. Three years into his NBA career, Stevens has proven to be that.

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