When asked what he thought of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich joked before Monday’s game, “I don’t think much of him, but I’m glad he thinks well of me. I enjoy that, because I want be larger than everyone around me. I enjoy making them smaller.”
San Antonio’s resident curmudgeon moved on to the next question, and then stopped short. “Hang on,” he said. “Let me answer that before you start saying, ‘Popovich disses Stevens.'”
“He’s a special person, on and off the court,” Pop said of Stevens. “He’s very intelligent. Intelligence is fine, but if it doesn’t come along with decisiveness and judgment and an emotional maturity, then it doesn’t do you much good. He’s got all of those things, and that’s large. Not that many people have that. It shows the way he handles people, the way he coaches. He’s going to be a great one before it’s all over with, and he’s already a hell of a coach.”
Stevens finally got Popovich’s number on Monday, as the Celtics beat the Spurs for the first time since 2011, when Shaquille O’Neal was on the roster, Jayson Tatum was 13 years old and milk only cost a quarter a gallon (or something like that). Kyrie Irving seized control, scoring eight points during a 10-2 run that pushed the C’s lead to double digits, and they led by as many as 19 before coasting to a 108-94 win over the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs.
“The Celtics’ movement was great,” Popovich said after a third straight loss. “I thought they executed really well offensively, and they are playing with some edge and some physicality, and I think they look wonderful.”
“There just a hard team to beat,” Stevens countered after his first win against San Antonio (which gave him a win against all 29 other teams). “I think a lot of people have struggled against them. They’ve got really good players. Obviously, great coaching. And just the way that they play on both ends of the court, that’s really hard to play against.”
Before Stevens made his coaching debut against the Spurs in 2013, Popovich copped to stealing some of the Celtics coach’s plays from his Butler days, and the two have belonged to a mutual admiration society ever since. It was no different when they met in Boston on Monday night.
“He’s a great role model for our profession,” Stevens said of Popovich. “He’s a guy who is a basketball coach but he’s not defined as a basketball coach. He’s got a lot of other interests, he does a lot of good things in the community, and he’s always open to helping out other coaches, so I can’t say enough good things about him. I think he’s at the top of our profession.”
Indeed, when Stevens first started out on the Celtics, he texted Popovich, “Hey, can I pick your brain for a while?” And the Spurs coach reciprocated.
“You really appreciate how good he is at maximizing his team year-to-year, season-to-season, week-to-week when you’re preparing for the game,” Stevens said on Monday. “Obviously, he’s been at the top of his profession for a long time, so you gain a greater appreciation when you’re watching it on film.”
Stevens and Popovich share at least two similar qualities: 1) They take a process-oriented approach to team-building — improve every play, every day, every game, and the results take care of themselves — and 2) They reach players on a personal level, not just with X’s and O’s, and they massage those relationships to maximize each individual’s role in the team concept.
Popovich built a legendary culture in San Antonio on those qualities, and Stevens is hoping to emulate the Spurs coach’s lead in terms of longevity.
Just not for another 20 years, like the 68-year-old Popovich. “No shot,” said Stevens. To which Pop responded, “That would be smart on his part.”