Coach Brad Stevens Source photo by Bradjward licensed CC by 2.0

The Boston Celtics, minus their two best players, and rotating a seven-man patchwork of recent high school graduates and veteran trade-bait, somehow just came within a game of the NBA Finals.

It was a shocking, entertaining, and for me personally, troubling.

As a Bad Boys era Detroit native, Celtic success makes me cringe, and this team and its prematurely blossoming talent are especially painful to behold. Every time current GM and former punk point guard Danny Angie stands up to applaud his overperforming young players, I secretly hope to see Rick Mahorn fly out of the third row and body check him to the floor like it’s 1987. I’m not ready for Boston fans to be this happy again.  

As an athlete and coach, though, I am mired in a deep, begrudging appreciation for how the Celtics develop young talent, get every drop of skill out of veterans, and get all of their players to buy in and compete at a consistently high level. It’s an example of what happens when an entire organization is able to align itself and promote a PROCESS FOCUS from top to bottom.

What is PROCESS FOCUS?

Process focus (sometimes referred to as process orientation), is most easily described by what it is not: a focus on OUTCOMES. As a culture, and especially when it comes to sports, outcome focus is our default setting: wins, numbers, sales, bottom line, RINGS. The implication is that the measurable ends are what truly matter, and that devoting our energy to those ends is what drives success.

Process focus takes a different approach. It focuses attention instead on the HOW of getting there, on the everyday and every moment actions, choices, and efforts that give the best chance of getting results. It doesn’t disregard goals or outcomes–if anything, it often demands even greater attention to them, as a source of feedback on how well we are doing in our daily efforts, but with ultimate emphasis on the efforts themselves. The difference may seem subtle, but the Boston Celtics are in the middle showing us how, when an entire organization commits to this approach, the outcomes can be drastically different.

How do you know that the Celtics have a process focus?  

One of the most effective aspects of process focus is that it makes day-to-day expectations transparent. Because the emphasis is on specific, controllable daily efforts and behaviors, it’s easy for coaches to communicate and for players to understand. Outcomes, like wins and losses, are less controllable and have many contributing factors. A set of day-to-day behaviors, though, when clearly defined, can be seen even by casual observers. For instance, with this Celtics team, it’s clear that:

Missing a good, open shot is acceptable; not moving the ball and taking bad shots is not.  Coach Brad Stevens does not have any great shooters, but he has a lot of average shooters and very good athletes, so his best offense is empowering all of his players to be aggressive, move the ball, force the defense to react and create driving lanes and open shots, which his players will convert at a decent rate over the course of a game. The good outcome of scoring points is driven by many aggregated decisions and actions over time. This is why Marcus Morris and Marcus Smart are allowed to shoot no matter how many threes they miss, but they will get an instant, three-minute rest if they get too dribble-happy.  

Getting beat by a great play is acceptable: missing a defensive assignment is not. If Lebron goes left and hits an unguardable fadeaway from the elbow, Stevens will barely register a shrug. But if you’re waiting for a timeout to go to the bathroom during a Celtics-Cavs game, wait for a player to miss a defensive rotation and leave Kyle Korver open for an uncontested three. This will happen regardless of whether Korver actually makes the shot. Again, the good outcome, stopping the other team, is achieved by many small defensive actions and choices that minimize high-percentage shots over 48 minutes.

A bad night or a bad matchup is acceptable; not being prepared is not. Aaron Baines will sit for two games because the other team is playing small, then show up in the next hitting four of five on corner threes before you realize Stevens had him prepping for that the whole time. It’s obvious from how his players respond to his liberal rotations that they know they’re not being judged for having a bad night or a bad series, and that as long as they continue to adhere to the team process, they will get another shot.

Being down on the scoreboard is acceptable; panic is not. Announcers love to point out, when the Celtics find themselves down eighteen in the second quarter and immediately go on a 10-0 run, that Brad Stevens does not panic, and that his players follow his lead. That is only half of the picture. The players are judged on HOW they play, not whether they are winning, so the players don’t focus on the scoreboard either. When Marcus Smart is missing open threes, he’s looking at the bench, knowing that if he doesn’t compensate by making an impact on defense, he’ll be sitting there. A few steals and fast-break points later, the other team is calling a timeout.

The mystery of how the Celtics played so well during this playoff run, despite losing their only elite scorers (Kyrie Irving and Gordon Heyward) is not actually that mysterious if you’ve watched them over the last two years and understand how the team operates.

When great athletes are freed from the fear of missing shots and making honest mistakes (outcomes they can only partially control), and rewarded for giving max effort, paying attention to details, and being great athletes (behaviors they can absolutely control), it should not be surprising when they play aggressive, energetic, fearless basketball.  

So what happened in Game Seven against the Cavs?

Anyone with a pair of eyes could see that the pressure of the moment got to many of the Celtics. The previously mentioned average shooters who had been hitting a decent percentage, especially in home games, went ice cold, shooting 7-for-39 from three as a team. And a lot of those shots weren’t even close.  

If you’ve been reading this column, you’re thinking “isn’t that outcome focus creeping in?” It absolutely is.

Getting players to completely let go of the fear of outcomes is easier said than done. There is immense pressure, from every possible angle, to win, to score, to get paid, etc. There is ego, there is Twitter, and there are millions of people watching.

To counteract those forces, everyone inside of the Celtics organization has committed to a concept of how build a team. If the Celtics’ ownership group did not support the long-term process of developing talent, Brad Stevens would have much harder time convincing his players to invest in efforts that do not get them attention or stats. He would have much harder time convincing players to buy into intensive defensive effort, and to running an offense with interchangable parts. But he and the organization have a shared understanding of how players and teams improve, all of their efforts have evolved from that shared understanding, and the results and attention are happening for the players. This is what people mean when they talk about a team “culture.”   

If that culture were not in place, young players would not be advancing so quickly, backups would not be stepping into the spotlight with such assuredness, and the Celtics would not have been one game from the NBA Finals.

The funny thing about someone like backup guard Terry Rozier going 0-for-10 from three in Game Seven is that served to remind all of us that he is a third string point guard who has never played meaningful playoff minutes, and that he has been thoroughly overperforming, along with all of his teammates, for a solid month. We saw a group of players who have no experience hitting big shots in big games, except for what they’d done in the last four weeks, finally miss shots. The impressive thing is that it did not happen sooner.

The other impressive thing is that missing shots was really their only major failure. It’s easy to ignore that they continued to execute on every other level. They held Cleveland to 89 points, and made Lebron work for all 35 of his. They continued to play with pace, create open shots, and share the ball. All those missed threes were good shots, and the offense of missing them was shared pretty equally among the typical suspects. Despite the emotion, despite the moment, and despite the slowly unfolding disaster of that second half, they did not panic. They played basketball the way they were coached to play, and the way that had gotten them there. They stuck to their process.  

Thanks to ESPN mics in the huddle, we even got to hear coach Stevens talking to his players about it.  

“Stick to the system!”

“Details! Details! Details!”

This is the message his team has been hearing every game, and every practice, for the last two years, and it is how inexperienced players have executed under pressure game after big game, in bigger and bigger moments. They’ve internalized the notion that focusing on the little things every day and every moment is how big things happen.

After upsetting the favored Philadelphia Sixers in the previous round, Stevens put the idea in his own words:

“Mental toughness in general isn’t being the most physical or just being able to make the big shot. It’s being able to do your job on the next play every single time. That’s hard to do. That consistency isn’t for everyone. And that’s why it’s the mark of really good players.”

Incredibly big things have already happened for this Celtics team, and I fear, as a Detroit fan, they’re only going to get bigger.