Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
BOSTON—Ten games into the season and the Boston Celtics were a train wreck.
The 4-6 start felt like just the beginning. In their home opener against Toronto, Boston was drilled 115-83, the first of several early home games that brought out the boo-birds.
Now, it’s clear those tough-to-swallow losses hardened this Celtics team in ways that few, perhaps besides head coach Ime Udoka, would have envisioned. Now they are four wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics eliminated the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals where they will face the Miami Heat in Game 1 on Tuesday, a rematch of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.
For Boston, this has been a gravel-paved season. Their slow start begat trade rumors. Injuries to multiple starters—Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and more recently, Robert Williams III—hurt continuity. Trust issues with key players forced uncomfortable public drama. The roster begged for questions, with uncertain answers:
—Can Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown become the leaders Boston is looking for?
—What contributions will come from a young, inexperienced bench in uncomfortable environments?
—Will Robert Williams III stay healthy enough to contribute significantly this season?
—Is Ime Udoka the right hire to replace Brad Stevens as the Celtics’ head coach?
But you could have asked those same questions leading into the matchup with Milwaukee. Note some of the more notable challenges the Celtics encountered—all overcome vs. the Bucks:
- Handling the absence of starting center Robert Williams III (knee), a key to their top-rated defense, for the last four games.
- Withstanding two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who delivered one of the most statistically impressive playoff series performances ever, becoming the first player in NBA history to earn at least 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in the same playoff series.
- Winning a pair of road games against the Bucks, one of the league’s top home teams this past season.
- A rookie coach vs. a proven championship coach.
Nothing has been given to these Celtics, a theme that goes back to their first turning point.
Working Through Trust Issues
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s inability to be efficient and mindful of their teammates hurt them offensively early in the season. During Boston’s 4-6 start, Tatum and Brown combined for almost as many turnovers (48) as assists (53).
It wasn’t until Celtics guard Marcus Smart discussed how both players at the time were reluctant to pass the ball to their teammates did trust become a major talking point.
“I would just like to play basketball,” Smart said. “Every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen. And every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is, ‘Make those guys try and pass the ball.’ They don’t want to pass the ball, and that’s something they’re going to learn.”
Those lessons learned were on full display in Boston’s series-clinching win over the Bucks.
Tatum’s Game 7 performance was the perfect example of his improvement as a scorer and playmaker who still has room for growth. He had 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field. He also dished a team-high eight assists.
But at the epicenter of the trust concerns have been Tatum and Brown.
The questions led to rampant speculation about whether the Celtics would be better off splitting them up via trade, something Celtics brass has maintained was never given serious consideration. It was also a topic Tatum has had to address.
Both have maintained publicly that their relationship has been strong. Prior to the start of the playoffs, Brown discussed how such talk has impacted their relationship.
“I think it has grown,” Brown said of his bond with Tatum this season. “We were fine before (the questions about their relationship). … Because of that, it made us closer in a sense.”
Bring on the Brooklyn Nets
Surviving the trade rumors and questions about the team’s chemistry put them in a different frame of mind once the playoffs arrived.
As the start of the postseason drew near, it became clear Boston could avoid the Brooklyn Nets, a team many eastern conference playoff hopefuls feared. Few teams would prefer facing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in a seven-game series.
Except for the Celtics, who didn’t seem to mind.
Riding a three-game winning streak with two games remaining, the Celtics were in a tight battle for the top seed in the East.
After sitting several key players in the penultimate regular-season game at Milwaukee, which Boston lost, Udoka decided to play his regular starters in the finale against the Memphis Grizzlies, who were resting most of their key players, including All-Star Ja Morant.
The Celtics knew entering the game that a victory would likely put them on course for a clash against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round, provided the Nets won their play-in game matchup against Cleveland—which they did.
And while it was not a total shock the Celtics won the series, they did so by delivering the only sweep of these playoffs.
Winning the series in such a convincing fashion was another milestone for this team in its journey toward an NBA title. They displayed the kind of poise and resolve forged in what has been a season filled with tough times.
There seems to always be someone stepping up when needed.
In Game 2 vs. the Bucks, when point guard Marcus Smart was sidelined with a bruised right thigh injury, Brown and Tatum combined for 14 assists, which equaled the assist numbers of Milwaukee’s entire starting five.
In Game 7, it was Grant Williams, who scored a team-high 27 points while filling in as a starter for Robert Williams.
They somehow endured heartbreaking losses at home, like the Game 1 and Game 5 defeats to the Bucks. This group has been there, done that, and bounced back.
And now it finds itself back in the Eastern Conference Finals after a one-year absence, facing a familiar foe in the Miami Heat, who Boston lost to in six games in 2020.
Like the Celtics, Miami has traveled a similar path during the regular season. And once the playoffs arrived, the Heat made quick work of its first-round foe (Atlanta), and advanced past a conference-semifinal opponent (Philadelphia) viewed as a title contender, akin to what Boston had to deal with against Milwaukee.
The Celtics have a roster that is loaded with young, rising talent, but are hardly new to the stakes of late postseason basketball. In 2018, a deep playoff run ended with a Game 7 loss at home to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2020, Tatum and Brown were both part of the Orlando Bubble team that lost in the conference finals to Miami.
“Although they are young, they’ve been through some things,” Udoka said.
Those are the types of experiences that provide perspective during tough times, knowing all too well what painful playoff losses feel like.
The path taken by the Celtics has certainly been rocky, perhaps necessarily. Now the team is just four wins away from the NBA Finals.