Celtics head coach Brad Stevens was busy trying to point out Kyle Korver Tuesday night. (John David Mercer/USA Today Sports)
Brad Stevens wouldn’t go as far as saying the Celtics have the Hawks right where they want them. After all, no team wants to be down 0-2 in a best-of-7 series, facing a virtual must-win on their home court in Game 3.
But Stevens said Wednesday during a conference that he’s fully confident that his team, which didn’t practice Wednesday, will be mentally ready to go when Game 3 begins Friday night.
“You know, with this group, we’ll re-convene [Thursday] and we’ll talk about where we stand and what we need to do in moving forward,” Stevens said. “I think we just have to have a backs-against-the-wall mentality because this team has been good and been resilient all year in that regard.”
That’s great because the Celtics are fighting some wicked odds, and some nasty recent history. This is the 13th time they’ve been in an 0-2 hole in a best-of-7 series and the fourth straight series they’ve faced this deficit, dating back to the 2012 Eastern Conference finals against Miami.
They’ve managed to overcome the 0-2 deficit exactly once, beating the Lakers, 4 games to 3, in the 1969 NBA finals. They nearly pulled it off against the Heat in 2012 when they were down 0-2, only to win the next three before losing Games 6 and 7. But they’re not worried about ancient history, just correcting the mistakes against Atlanta that has them in their current predicament.
“I think our focus needs to be continue to play the right way on both ends of the court,” Stevens said. “Obviously, we need to start better, we need to play better. We need to do a lot of things better. But I’ve never questioned this group’s resiliency or willingness to stand up when times are tough and those type of things because they’ve been pretty good about that all year.”
Why is this team so good when the chips are down?
“I couldn’t pinpoint it,” Isaiah Thomas said. “It’s just the background that all these guys come from.We’ve always had a never back down mentality. This group of teammates has always been counted out. They’ve always had that chip on their shoulders to prove everybody wrong. That’s just another stepping stone in everybody’s story. We do have to climb uphill, but at the same time we have to take advantage of our home court.”
Of course, the Celtics need to show resiliency because of the hole they dug in the first half of their first two games of this series. They trailed 51-34 at the half Saturday. And last night, they were in a 24-3 hole in the first six minutes before trailing at the half, 43-28. In their last four games, the Celtics have faced halftime deficits of 63-41, 62-38, 51-34 and 43-28. That’s an average of deficit of 55-35.
Part of that is injury related. Part of it is 32 percent shooting from the field. And yet another part of it is putting players in roles they may not be completely comfortable with, like Marcus Smart trying to create offense as a starter for the injured Avery Bradley when Thomas is drawing so much defensive attention.
But what Stevens said Wednesday was that he saw enough positive things from the 89-72 Game 2 loss to take hope that – even with a multitude of injuries – things are about to change.
“I think you go into every single game with that mindset, like what do you need to do to be successful against this team,” Stevens said. “We’ve had some really good moments in those games so we have to bottle those up more often than not. But we can’t play the way we’ve played and be successful. We have to play more consistently throughout the game than we’ve played. Tactically, I felt like there were a lot of things that went well. There are some things that certainly we need to tweak. We’ll go from there but we have to play 48 minutes better than we have to have a chance.”
The Celtics have lost their last seven playoff games, dating to a Game 5 win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in the 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinals. They are 0-6 in playoff games with Brad Stevens. After getting swept in 2015, Stevens says he’s looking at this season, which ended with 48 wins, as a totally different animal.
“I look at them as two totally entities, obviously. Last year was unique because we had come together with six weeks left in the year in a lot of ways, and kind of transformed on the fly,” Stevens said. “Obviously, playing a different team. Played a good Cleveland team [last year] and this year, we’ve had less change and I think we’ve shown good, steady progress throughout the time. Once again, playing a really good Atlanta team. I think the biggest thing is that we’ve got to focus on the things that have made us good throughout the regular season and given us a chance.
“Certainly, there are a lot of things that we’ve got to do better and that Atlanta is trying to not let you do. Ultimately, we’re going to have to be better at executing what we want and do it more times than not to give ourselves a chance.”