Spurs’ Popovich ‘steals’ strategy from Celtics’ Stevens

SAN ANTONIO (AP) Brad Stevens is still trying to fully put his imprint on the Boston Celtics in only his second season with the franchise. He has, however, already left his mark on San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich.

Popovich readily admits ”stealing” plays and strategy from opposing coaches of every level from the NBA to pee-wee basketball. He says Boston’s young coach has always been one of his favorite targets.

”I had already stolen from him plenty,” Popovich acknowledged before San Antonio’s home game against Boston on Friday. The Spurs never trailed in the game, in holding off the Celtics 101-89 after getting a late scare.

Stevens apparently does not mind the theft, often seeking Popovich’s counsel. The two spent an hour together before the league’s coaches’ meetings this offseason, with Stevens looking for advice from the reigning Coach of the Year.

Separated by three decades in age, the baby-faced Stevens and cranky Popovich have bonded over an all-consuming love of basketball and their Indiana roots.

Popovich, 66, has won five NBA titles in 19 seasons with the Spurs. He holds the league record for most consecutive winning seasons at 17 and is one of only nine coaches with 1,000 career victories.

Stevens, 38, is 55-94 in two seasons with the Celtics after a stellar, six-year career at Butler University in his hometown of Indianapolis. He led the Bulldogs to consecutive NCAA runner-up finishes as a mid-major in 2010-11.

”I respected how he does things and what he accomplished way before he even came in the league,” said Popovich, who was born in East Chicago, Indiana. ”Whenever there was a Butler game, I always tried to watch.

”Being an Indiana guy, too, you follow all those teams.”

Stevens broke the NCAA record for most wins in a coach’s first three years at Butler before joining the Celtics in 2013.

It was during those standout seasons at Butler that the baby-faced Stevens caught the attention of the Spurs’ coach. Popovich did not reveal which plays he pilfered on his way to a fifth NBA title, but he professed his admiration.

”Everyone in basketball knew a long time ago before he was in the NBA that he was a heck of a coach,” Popovich said. ”Once he came in, we just gravitated to each other in that respect and being Indiana guys. We just talked in general about the league and what he’s going to be up against and how different the sport is and all that. Obviously, he’s caught on very, very quickly.”

Boston currently is eighth in the Eastern Conference despite trading away veteran stars such as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo over the past two seasons.

For his part, Stevens does not truly believe any of his sets are being used by arguably the greatest coach in NBA history.

”It’s obviously flattering,” Stevens said. ”He’s a nice guy, he says nice things about people. It’s nice of him to say that.”