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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 boos.
It’s clear now that those hard-to-take losses hardened this Celtics team in a way few, except perhaps head coach Ime Udoka, could have imagined. Now they are four wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals.
The Celtics eliminated the reigning NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals where they will face the Miami Heat in Game 1 on Tuesday, a repeat of the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.
For Boston, this was a gravel season. Their slow start led to trade rumours. Injuries to several starters – Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and more recently Robert Williams III – hampered continuity. Trust issues with key players forced uncomfortable public drama. The list asked 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 bank in uncomfortable environments?
—Will Robert Williams III remain healthy enough to make a significant contribution this season?
—Is Ime Udoka the right man to replace Brad Stevens as Celtics head coach?
But you could have asked the same questions before coming to the matchup with Milwaukee. Consider some of the more notable challenges the Celtics faced – all were overcome against the Bucks:
- Dealing with the absence of starting center Robert Williams III (knee), a key to their top-notch defense, in the last four games.
- Despite two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who delivered one of the most statistically impressive playoff series performances of all time and became the first player in NBA history to record at least 200 points, 100 rebounds and 50 assists in the same playoff series.
- Won two away games against the Bucks, one of the best home sides in the league last season.
- A Rookie Coach vs. a Proven Championship Coach.
Nothing was given to these Celtics, a theme that dates back to their first turning point.
Working through trust issues
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown’s inability to be efficient and pay attention to their teammates hurt them offensively early in the season. During Boston’s 4-6 start, Tatum and Brown combined for nearly as many turnovers (48) as assists (53).
It wasn’t until Celtics guard Marcus Smart spoke about how both players were reluctant to pass the ball to their teammates at the time, did trust become a major topic of conversation.
“I would just love to play basketball,” Smart said. “Every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen. And every team is programmed and trained to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think every scouting report is, ‘Let these guys try to pass the ball.’ They don’t want to pass the ball and they will learn that.”
Those lessons learned came into their own in Boston’s series-winning win over the Bucks.
Tatum’s performance in Game 7 was the perfect example of his improvement as a goalscorer and playmaker who still has room to grow. He had 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field. He also dished out a team-high of eight assists.
But at the epicenter of confidence concerns were Tatum and Brown.
The questions led to wild speculation as to whether the Celtics would be better off splitting them up by trade, something Celtics Brass claimed was never seriously considered. It was also an issue Tatum had to deal with.
Both have publicly claimed that their relationship was strong. Before the start of the playoffs, Brown discussed how such conversations have affected their relationship.
“I think it’s grown,” Brown said of his bond with Tatum this season. “We were fine before (the questions about their relationship). … Because of that, in a way, it brought us closer.”
Bring on the Brooklyn Nets
Surviving the trade rumors and questions about team chemistry put her in a different frame of mind when the playoffs arrived.
As the start of the postseason neared, it became clear that Boston could dodge the Brooklyn Nets, a team that many Eastern Conference playoff hopes feared. Few teams would prefer to face Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in a seven-game series.
Except for the Celtics, who didn’t seem to mind.
With a three-game winning streak and two games remaining, the Celtics were in a close battle for first place in the East.
After sitting against several key players in the penultimate game of the regular season in Milwaukee, which Boston lost, Udoka decided to face his regulars in the Finals against the Memphis Grizzlies, who were resting most of their key players, including All-Star Ja Morant.
The Celtics knew early in the game that a win would likely put them in a first-round clash with the Brooklyn Nets, assuming the Nets won their play-in matchup against Cleveland — which they did.
And while it wasn’t a total shock that the Celtics won the series, they did by delivering the only win in those playoffs.
Winning the series in such a convincing manner was another milestone for this team on its journey to an NBA title. They showed the kind of composure and determination forged in a season full of difficult times.
There always seems to be someone stepping up when the need arises.
In Game 2 against the Bucks, when point guard Marcus Smart was sidelined with a bruised right thigh, Brown and Tatum had 14 combined assists, which matched Milwaukee’s total starting five.
In Game 7, it was Grant Williams who scored a team-high 27 points as a starter for Robert Williams.
They’ve kind of suffered heartbreaking losses at home, like the Game 1 and Game 5 losses to the Bucks. This group was there, did that and bounced back.
And now it finds itself back in the Eastern Conference Finals after a year-long absence, facing a familiar opponent on the Miami Heat whom Boston lost in six games in 2020.
Like the Celtics, Miami has followed a similar path in the regular season. And when the playoffs arrived, the Heat quickly finished off their first-round opponent (Atlanta) and prevailed over a conference semifinals opponent (Philadelphia) who was viewed as a title contender, much like Boston versus Milwaukee.
The Celtics have a roster full of young, up-and-coming talent, but they’re hardly new to the field of late postseason basketball. In 2018, a long playoff run ended in a Game 7 home loss to the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2020, Tatum and Brown were both part of the Orlando Bubble team that lost to Miami in the Conference Finals.
“Even though they’re young, they’ve been through a lot,” Udoka said.
Those are the kinds of experiences that offer perspective in tough times when you know all too well what painful playoff losses feel like.
The path the Celtics have taken has certainly been rocky, perhaps of necessity. Now the team is just four wins away from the NBA Finals.