The NBA postseason has always been pressure-packed, and while the newly introduced play-in tournament is technically not counted as part of the playoffs, it nevertheless remains a high-stakes affair.
Coaches especially feel the pressure considering that the fates of their jobs are dependent on their team’s performance over time, and no coach outside of the Milwaukee Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer may have been on the hot seat as much as Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens.
The Indiana native, who is in his eighth season as Celtics head coach, has yet to reach the NBA Finals despite making the playoffs every year since 2015. The three Eastern Conference Finals trips in the last four postseasons are also a solid feat, but like in most things, almost is never enough.
Finishing the 2020-2021 season at 36-36, Boston was forced to enter the playoffs via the play-in tournament after falling to the seventh seed. A strong third quarter and another 50-point performance from Jayson Tatum allowed them to take a 118-100 victory over the gritty Washington Wizards, but advancing to the playoffs was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Celtics will now continue their uphill climb towards making their fourth Eastern Conference Finals in five years as they are slated to face the second-seed Brooklyn Nets this weekend. That they were able to force Russell Westbrook and Bradley Beal into committing five turnovers each while limiting the rest of the Wizards into shooting 36 percent from the field are positive points. Against the three-pronged attack of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, however, they will have to be more disciplined and focused against the most talented lineup this season.
For the Celtics, winning games is a given. The true metric with which they measure success is not in winning seasons or division titles; championships are the standard in a sports city like Boston. Each of the city’s professional teams (the NFL’s New England Patriots, the MLB’s Boston Red Sox, and the NHL’s Boston Bruins) have won a championship since 2000, but the Celtics are the only title-less squad in this decade.
Since Boston last won an NBA title back in 2008, their archrivals the Los Angeles Lakers have won two titles, while frequent foil LeBron James has clinched four league championships, with his 2012 title coming after dispatching Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven games. Even the Toronto Raptors, the NBA’s only active Canada-based team, won their first championship in franchise history during that span of time.
It is then with these high standards that simply advancing past the play-in tournament may not cut it for Stevens. Not having Jaylen Brown will likely help his cause and allow him some concessions, but his 36-36 record and the inconsistencies on the court stick out like a sore thumb in spite of the injuries and the COVID-19 disruptions.
The familiarity he should have with most of his personnel and having a star in Tatum should make playoff appearances commonplace and yet for a team that has been lauded for its consistency and staying power amidst star turnover, the Celtics’ title count remains stuck at 17. Compared to some of his coaching peers, he has also been given a long leash and confidence from the front office. Then again, you can only have so many empty postseason trips before management starts to look elsewhere.
The win over Washington helped secure Brad Stevens’ job regardless of when Boston Celtics’ postseason ends, but the clock has likely begun ticking. A healthy Brown and a proper offseason after two COVID-19-disrupted campaigns will likely amp up the pressure in the title-hungry city of Boston that has seen its peers and rivals ascend to the top.