Coach of the Year candidate Brad Stevens' Celtics keep race for East's top seed close with win over Raptors

BOSTON -- During the final minutes of a disheartening and lopsided loss to the Toronto Raptors in early February, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens trotted out a three-bigs lineup and told his players to run a 2-3 zone defense.

The group enjoyed moderate success, or at least more success than what Boston had accomplished earlier that night. Still, Stevens chalked it up as simply "testing things." Given that the Raptors led by as much as 29, Stevens wasn't about to suggest they had found some sort of antidote.

Fast-forward two months.

With the injuries to Stevens' roster forcing him to routinely explore the unconventional, the Celtics again threw zone looks at the visiting Raptors on Saturday night. And while it was far from perfect, it was enough of a curveball to help the surging Celtics emerge with a 110-99 triumph at TD Garden.

While the Celtics remain two games back of the East-leading Raptors, Saturday's win makes things a bit more intriguing entering the final calendar month of the regular season. These two teams meet again Wednesday in Toronto in what could be a battle for first place.

Boston's win Saturday night might have also vaulted Stevens to the front of the Coach of the Year balloting.

The Celtics brought back just four players from last year's East finalist and lost their All-Star free-agent signing (Gordon Hayward) a mere five minutes into the new season. An unrelenting injury bug further feasted on the team throughout March, but, unfazed, the Celtics matched their win total (53) from the 2017-18 season with Saturday's triumph.

Boston's win projection had plummeted after losing Hayward, but the team responded to an 0-2 start by winning 16 straight. More recently, the Celtics were supposed to find themselves clinging for dear life to the No. 2 seed after Kyrie Irving shut himself down in mid-March and sought surgery for a sore left knee. Instead, the Celtics are making a spirited charge at stealing the No. 1 seed. And Stevens might just be prying the Coach of the Year award away from Toronto's Dwane Casey in the process. Even if Stevens has no desire to talk about the award.

"Could care less," Stevens said before Saturday's game. "There are 29 other great coaches, and just to be a head coach in this league is enough. It's super hard. There's no way that I would ever consider myself to be in that race.

"I think that Dwane should be at the top of anybody's list, and that's the way it goes. At the end of the day, to me, it's more about getting a chance to coach our team. But what [Casey has] done is special. What [Indiana's] Nate McMillan has done is special."

Stevens is, of course, being modest. The Celtics lost three of four games after Irving couldn't return for the second half of a defeat to the visiting Indiana Pacers on March 11. That same game, Daniel Theis tore his meniscus and Marcus Smart tore a tendon in his thumb. Celtics fans started to wonder if Boston had a big enough cushion to keep its grasp on the No. 2 seed, especially with the Cavaliers lurking.

But even though Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Shane Larkin, and Jabari Bird have each missed multiple games in March, the Celtics have played some inspired basketball recently.

Not only has Boston won six straight, sweeping a four-game road trip out west last week, but the Celtics have done that while some of Stevens' primary competition in the Coach of the Year balloting.

Boston's win streak has included victories over Toronto (Casey), Portland (Terry Stotts), and Utah (Quin Snyder). That Stevens has won with a skeleton crew only strengthens his case for the award.

"You've got Brad, he's done a heck of a job," said Casey. "If you'd said that losing Gordon Hayward, who's their free-agent All-Star, in the first [game] of the year and you see where they are now and the job they've done. Losing Kyrie Irving, who's another All-Star, and see where they are now. And win 16 in a row after [Hayward's injury]. That's a heck of a job."

Stevens' players, biased as they might be, think their coach deserves the honor. While Stevens downplays his role in his team's performance amid injuries and suggests he simply employs a next-man-up philosophy, his players rave about how the coaching staff as a whole puts players in positions to thrive.

It certainly helps Stevens that his players have embraced bigger roles. And Boston's young talent deserves credit for stepping up recently.

"Nobody on the other team [is] going to care who we got out there, so we can't care, either," said Terry Rozier. "We just go out there and we just play. We don't even think about it. Our coaches do a great job, no matter who we got, to put us in the right position to make us successful."

That zone defense? The Raptors swear they were ready for it. "We got what we wanted out of it, we just got to make the shots," said Casey after his team connected on just 8 of 35 3-pointers (22.9 percent). In the fourth quarter, Toronto made only 1 of 10 3s while turning the ball over seven times, leading to 11 Celtics points.

Without Irving, Smart and Larkin on Saturday night, the Celtics were forced to play Jayson Tatum at point guard at times. The rookie said he was just trying to remember the plays.

At the other end of the floor, Stevens stuck Tatum up top of the zone and let his length disrupt passing lanes for the Raptors. Tatum scored 13 of his 24 points in the third quarter and helped Boston find a way to steal yet another game it seemingly had no business winning.

Stevens deserves a lot of credit for Boston's wins. But, as that February loss showed, he's thinking of ways to help his team further down the road even in defeat.