Dad jokes and a Ms. Pac-Man hiatus: How Brad Stevens kept Boston afloat

BOSTON -- The pizza parlor style Ms. Pac-Man table, once a beloved daily diversion, has been gathering dust.

Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens used to plop down at the glowing cabinet -- a gift from his wife, Tracy, a few years back -- and play a dozen rounds of the 1980s arcade favorite to break up the monotony of film work at his Wellesley home.

When Stevens first revealed his love of the game last summer, it drew national attention (NBA coaches -- they're just like us!) but as the Celtics near the finish line of the 2017-18 campaign, Stevens gave a startling admission.

"I haven't played it all year," Stevens said during a rare Celtics off-day practice this week.

Such are the sacrifices during a season that has challenged Stevens like no other. There was an unprecedented roster overhaul that culminated with the Celtics swapping All-Star point guards with their chief Eastern Conference rival. Then Boston lost its offseason All-Star signing just five minutes into its season opener. And the injury bug returned with a vengeance in March to feast on the team's remaining talent.

Despite all the obstacles, the Celtics have navigated parts of the season as if they've just munched on a Pac-Man power pellet, turning some of the league's top competition into glowing ghosts. There was a 16-game winning streak early in the season that restored the team's confidence and, despite running a MASH unit out of their practice facility in recent weeks, Boston has won six of seven while unfathomably remaining within striking distance of the top seed in the conference.

The Celtics visit the East-leading Toronto Raptors on Wednesday night (8 ET, ESPN) with hopes of keeping that quest for the No. 1 seed alive. And the fact that it's still even a possibility speaks to the sheer sorcery that Stevens has wielded this season.

Stevens downplays his role in Boston's success. Even the Ms. Pac-Man hiatus, he contends, isn't entirely due to the rigors of keeping his team afloat.

"I've been trying to tell my [12-year-old] son [Brady] to play less video games," Stevens said. "So I can't set the bad example."

Celtics players have combined to miss a total of 193 games this season. That's not an exorbitantly high number, and injury data tracked by Jeff Stott's indispensable InStreetClothes.com ranked Boston only 13th in the NBA in terms of total games missed through the end of March.

What's more telling is that Boston's opening-night starters have combined to miss 111 of those games with the All-Star trio of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford combining for 100 of those missed games. The Celtics rank near the top of the league in total salary lost to injury, per InStreetClothes.

Add in lengthy injury absences for top reserves such as Marcus Morris (26 games missed) and Marcus Smart (23), and that has forced Stevens to often lean heavily on the inexperienced players who comprise the end of Boston's overhauled roster.

One night rookie forward Guerschon Yabusele is in the G League, the next he's an emergency starter. Shane Larkin was in Europe last season, now he's providing key backup ballhandling for an East contender. Greg Monroe was a midseason buyout from the lottery-bound Suns but could be a key bench contributor in the postseason for the Celtics.

Stevens admits the roster flux certainly has challenged him and his staff but swears it's not routinely keeping him up until 3 a.m. while trying to figure out new lineup combinations and schemes. He gushes about his selfless young roster -- one that features seven rookies overall -- and how players have consistently embraced a next-man-up mentality. And Stevens has even maintained much of his typical game-day routine, still sneaking in a stress-relieving run during the day.

Still, Stevens' face lights up at the video game chatter. But is Stevens any good?

"I'm good," Stevens said confidently, displaying the sort of bravado that he'd never show when it comes to tying himself to the success of his team. "I've never lost a game since we've had the [Ms. Pac-Man] machine.

"Then again, I've only defeated a bunch of 9-year-olds."

The day the Celtics finalized the trade that sent Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Irving, Stevens wrestled with what to say to the All-NBA point guard who had played through both a nagging hip injury and the death of his sister to help push Boston to the Eastern Conference finals. Stevens settled on the truth when he eventually wrote a text message to Thomas explaining how he'd been staring at the walls for five hours trying to find the proper words.

A summer of swift change brought only four players back from the previous season, and for a coach who spent his first four years in the league pleading for continuity, the overhaul was sobering.

"Your head is spinning and then your heartstrings are pulling and everything else," Stevens said. "There's just a lot that goes into it."

Despite the daunting task of figuring out a new puzzle, there were also shiny new toys. The addition of Hayward -- whose relationship with Stevens from their days at Butler contributed to Hayward's decision to sign in Boston -- and Irving gave Stevens the sort of elite-level talent that he never truly had before. Much of Boston's success in recent seasons had been the result of Stevens' squeezing every ounce of ability out of a bunch of second-round picks and redemption projects.

Once the initial shock wore off, Stevens glowed watching the combination of Hayward, Irving and Horford operate in the early days of training camp. They whizzed around the court defensively as if they had played together for years. The potential was obvious to onlookers.

Then five minutes into Boston's season opener in Cleveland, Hayward went up for an alley-oop lob from Irving and his ankle turned gruesomely in the wrong direction upon landing. In an instant, the expectations for Boston's season had changed radically.

Well, for everyone but Stevens.

Boston's coach split his time between tending to Hayward as he prepped for surgery while simultaneously imploring his other players to keep their focus on day-to-day improvement and not get overwhelmed by the bigger picture.

"I think Brad understands that he's a basketball coach and that he's not doing brain surgery tomorrow."
Celtics president Danny Ainge

Six months later, the Celtics already have matched their win total from the 2016-17 season with four games to play. And Stevens' players will not listen to other suggestions for Coach of the Year.

"In Brad we trust," Celtics second-year forward Jaylen Brown said. "We got four returning guys from the Eastern Conference finals team from last year, 11 new teammates, and our record will be even better. I don't think that's ever been done."

Brown's right: According to ESPN Stats & Information, no conference finalist had ever brought back as few as four players the next year, let alone come out with a matching record.

"Tremendous credit to the team we have, [president of basketball operations] Danny Ainge for putting it together," Brown said, "but Brad also for leading us out with a scheme and a plan that we want to execute each and every day."

A faulty contact lens contributed to Brown developing a nasty eye infection in early December and the second-year swingman was forced to wear goggles on the court in the immediate aftermath. After a mid-December win over the Nuggets, Stevens was asked about how Brown played despite the cumbersome eyewear that he'd routinely ditch during games.

"We had some laughs in retrospect about that," Stevens said at his postgame news conference before pausing. "Retro specs ... that's pretty good."

Some reporters laughed, others groaned.

These cringe-worthy one-liners have become social media gold, often paired with a #DadStevens hashtag. It has done little to deter Stevens, who isn't afraid to pounce on a bad pun.

And his players confirm that Stevens has been especially punny this season.

"There's been a lot of those moments this year," Horford said, shaking his head in amusement. "Those lines come very often now. And a lot more often than they used to.

"I think it's a comfort thing, honestly. This is his fifth year. We have a younger group. I just think that he feels more comfortable. Last year, it was not like this. Now I feel he lets his hair down a little bit more."

For as serious as Stevens is about bringing out the best in his players and progressing as a team, he does appear to be embracing the lighter moments during a long season.

"I think Brad understands that he's a basketball coach and that he's not doing brain surgery tomorrow," Ainge said. "He does get that."

There are plenty of moments that suggest that Stevens is more loose this season. After a thrilling win over the Trail Blazers on Super Bowl Sunday, Stevens showed up to his postgame news conference wearing a New England Patriots "Not Done" winter cap and had the sleeves on his Celtics hoodie cut off, a la Bill Belichick. Stevens even brought Philadelphia native -- and Eagles superfan -- Marcus Morris to the podium in his Carson Wentz jersey to spar about that night's matchup.

During a shootaround in Chicago, Stevens playfully chided Irving for failing to intentionally miss a free throw the game before by suggesting the team had suspended him for that night's game (Irving sat out because of injury). When Xavier Silas arrived on a 10-day contract last month, Stevens jokingly told the 30-year-old G Leaguer that all they needed him to do was replace all of the injured Irving's All-Star-caliber production.

Presented with all this as evidence that maybe, just maybe, we're starting to see a looser Stevens, the 41-year-old coach downplayed the suggestion.

"This is a long year. You try to just enjoy the moments you can enjoy because the rest of them are pretty stressful," Stevens said. "As far as feeling looser or whatever, no I don't. I don't think you ever feel comfortable."

The month of March hammered home Stevens' point. Irving's knee soreness flared up early in the month, forcing him to sit out for the first time. Soon after, Brown slipped off the rim following a dunk and concussed himself while falling hard to the floor. All of this just as Boston was starting to play what Stevens thought was some of its best basketball of the season.

Then, during a game against the Pacers on March 11, Irving was forced to leave with soreness that eventually would require surgery while Smart and Daniel Theis suffered injuries that ended both of their regular seasons. Theis is out for the season and Stevens isn't certain if either Irving or Smart will play again in 2017-18.

For much of March, the Celtics operated with a roster in which half of the 12 available bodies were rookies. Not only were Hayward, Irving, Smart and Theis out for most of the month, but Horford, Morris, Brown and Jabari Bird all missed multiple games. Rookie Jayson Tatum is the only player on Boston's roster not to miss a game this season.

Stevens obviously would prefer to have all his players available, but is there some small part of him that enjoyed the mad-scientist challenge of cobbling together lineups and schemes?

"You know what, as coaches you always look for the challenge, right?" Stevens said. "But I think you obviously want to be full-go because it gives you more options, it gives you more flexibility. Now, that being said, I think one of the things it does is it stretches you to think about lineups you haven't played together. Going big when others go small, all those types of things. That's probably helpful to have to think about that."

During a game last month in Sacramento, the on-court mics picked up Stevens screaming defensive instructions to G League two-way call-up Bird. Without Irving or Smart, Stevens has often had to help call offensive sets from the sideline.

In Tuesday's loss in Milwaukee, Boston was forced to start G League two-way player Kadeem Allen at point guard because of injuries and still nearly stole a win. The Celtics have started 13 different players and 17 different lineups this season, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Despite his contributions, Stevens says he believes his players deserve all the credit for what the team has accomplished. All he has done, he figures, is put them in position to maximize their abilities. "Soar with your strengths" has become one of Stevens' favorite catchphrases this season and embodies the contributions from Boston's entire roster.

"You dream of coaching teams where people aren't worried about how much they're going to play or what their role is," Stevens said. "These guys just all do whatever they need to do to help the team win, and that's where we are right now.

"That's one of the things that makes the transition when you lose guys a little bit easier."