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Master architect: How Brad Stevens built the Celtics' title team

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Brad Stevens appears to prefer operating in the shadows while the spotlight shines on others.

The Celtics' president of basketball operations' statement upon receiving the 2023-24 NBA Executive of the Year award at the end of April suggested as much: "This recognition has everything to do with the team, and nothing to do with any one individual."

Whether or not Stevens seeks praise for his efforts, he deserves heaps of credit for constructing a championship Boston team that was without rival this season.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown boast eight All-Star selections and four All-NBA team nods between them, and Brown's now a Finals MVP. But as much as Beantown's two-headed monster gave this team the star power required for a championship, it was the supporting cast that galvanized the Celtics' strengths.

Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Kristaps Porzingis, and Al Horford provided the Celtics with stellar two-way play and an unrelenting intensity that became both the ethos and backbone of a team that suffered few low points. The Celtics likely don't lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy without this quartet.

Just ask Stevens. In eight seasons as Boston's soft-spoken head coach, he amassed a 354-282 regular-season record and led the team to the playoffs in seven of eight tries after missing out in his debut year in charge. Those teams got no further than the conference finals on three occasions, and his successor, Ime Udoka, was on the losing end of the 2022 NBA Finals in six games to the Warriors. Something was missing.

So, how did we get here? Four influential trades shrewdly engineered by front-office mastermind Stevens were the difference.

Horford returns after OKC banishment

Boston Globe / Boston Globe / Getty

After a three-year spell in Boston followed by stints in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, Horford played only 28 games with the Thunder in 2020-21 before sitting out the remainder of the season as the organization prioritized a youth movement. A solid career was at a standstill.

In his first move as team president in June 2021, Stevens shipped Kemba Walker and a pair of picks to OKC for frontcourt duo Horford and Moses Brown. Walker was bought out by OKC and played 46 combined games with the Knicks and Mavericks across two injury-plagued seasons before heading to Europe.

In 60 playoff outings across three seasons since returning to Boston, Horford averaged 9.4 points and 7.9 rebounds, but more importantly, the 38-year-old was a defensive stalwart. In Game 1 against the Mavs, Horford excelled when forced to guard Luka Doncic in pick-and-roll scenarios. Doncic scored two points on 0-for-8 shooting in the contest with Horford as his primary defender.

Boston talked a lot about winning a title for the veteran. Mission accomplished.

Celtics acquire White from Spurs

In a move that in hindsight cost the Celtics very little, Boston traded for White in February 2021 after he signed a four-year, $70-million rookie extension with the Spurs. If that seems like a bargain for one of the league's best pound-for-pound defenders, that's because it is.

If there's a player who epitomizes the selflessness and defensively unrelenting identity of this Celtics team, it's White. He's twice been selected All-NBA Defensive second team since joining Boston and was included in shortlists for biggest All-Star snubs this season. He also went from being a below-average shooter from deep to flirting with a 40% clip in 2023-24.

The 29-year-old was a constant presence against the Mavs, especially on the defensive end where the undrafted guard displayed some deft rim-protection skills: White's game-saving late block on P.J. Washington in Game 2 secured a pivotal victory.

Porzingis to Boston in 3-team deal

Boston Globe / Boston Globe / Getty

The Celtics acquired Porzingis in a massive three-team trade the day after the 2023 NBA Draft, in a deal that sent fan favorite Marcus Smart to Memphis a year removed from his Defensive Player of the Year season.

After a mercurial eight-season spell with the Knicks, Mavs, and Wizards, Porzingis found a role with Joe Mazzulla's Celtics that suited him well: The Latvian became a third option who blended traditional big-man duties with savvy floor-spacing perimeter skills. He averaged 20.1 points during the regular season on only 13.2 field goal attempts - efficient stuff.

Despite missing 10 playoff outings and the third game of the Finals due to various ailments, Porzingis went off in Game 1 vs. the Mavs, scoring 18 first-quarter points and setting the tone for a series that significantly favored Boston. "It doesn't matter how long the guy is off, he's going to make plays," Mazzulla said after Game 1.

Stevens sends haul for Holiday

In September 2023, the Celtics acquired Holiday from the Trail Blazers for a haul that at the time seemed not insignificant. The fact Malcolm Brogdon and Robert Williams can't stay healthy skews that assessment. The move came days after the Bucks shipped two-time All-Star Holiday to Portland for a package that included Dame Lillard. In getting Lillard, the elite guard they hoped to pair with Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks indirectly gifted their conference rivals a defensive workhorse perfectly suited for Mazzulla's Celtics.

A six-time NBA All-Defensive team selection, Holiday's arguably the league's best perimeter defender. He can also contribute on the offensive end when needed, like in Game 2 of the Finals. With Tatum mired in a shooting slump, Holiday filled the void with a team-high 26 points on 11-of-14 shooting. He became the first player in Finals history to record at least 25 points and 10 rebounds on 75% or better shooting with zero turnovers.

During Boston's Game 3 victory, 76ers All-Star Joel Embiid tweeted: "Did the bucks give them the championship?" Asked about the comment during the broadcast ahead of Game 4, Embiid confirmed he was talking about Holiday. To answer Joel's question: No, the Bucks didn't give the Celtics the championship, though it's unlikely they win it without Holiday.

Adam Glanzman / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Stevens was barely noticeable on the stage during postgame celebrations Monday in Boston - that's him, furthest to the right, in the photo above - before speaking with media.

Asked about his role in building a championship side - let's not forget Stevens also struck gold in naming Mazzulla Udoka's successor - the characteristically reticent and modest executive stuck to the script. "When I say I didn't do anything, like, I didn't do anything."

Fresh off an outstanding series at both ends, Holiday joined the interview, telling Stevens, "Thanks for bringing me here and being a part of this because there's no greater feeling than this." To which Stevens responded: "And to the long road ahead."

Never change, Brad Stevens.

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