Ime Udoka warned his players. Prepare for a painful summer as close as possible.
“It will hurt. It’s gonna hurt for a while. The stuff will probably never go away. I’ve lost one before,” the Celtics coach said after his team was eliminated by Golden State in the NBA Finals. “That was part of the message. Let’s push it, the experience. Growth and progress we’ve made this season. Obviously reaching his ultimate goal and missing a few games will hurt. There are a lot of guys in there who are very emotional right now.”
Udoka told them they had better come back and depending on how far they got it would mean they are ready for the championship. With starlet Jayson Tatum at the top of the list, the Celtics fell short against the more mature, disciplined Warriors. You’ve learned some very basic elements like ball care and boxing the hard way, but another growth spurt may be ahead.
Unfortunately, the postseason grades on this list are heavily impacted by the Celtics’ overall downturn in their Finals loss, when offense faltered and errors piled up. They’d endured two grueling seven-game series against Milwaukee and Miami, with big road wins in both series as well as a 2-1 start against Golden State, only for the bottom of the offensive to fall.
As always, grades are based on what was expected of each player during the regular season and playoffs.
JAYLEN BROWN: A regular season, B postseason. As one of the few Celtics — perhaps the only one — to lead the Finals with his offensive play, Brown averaged 23.5 points in six games, including 34 in Game 6. If he develops a better grip, he will too keep doing Become one of the NBA’s top finishers. But right now, as evidenced by his 10 turnovers in the last two finals games, Brown still has a lot more to learn about playing under control.
AL HORFORD: One registration, one contribution. Horford was thrilled with his “second chance” and reached the final for the first time in his long playoff career. He was perfect in the “OG” role, and unlike his first time in green, he didn’t have to worry about a crumbling dressing room. Everything Horford did well suited the Celtics 2021-22, with his style of play and 3-point shooting both evident when the Celtics played well. But as stagnation set in during the Finals, Horford was no better than anyone at pulling their Celtics out of their rut. Remarkably, at the age of 36, he was physically able to meet the demands of Ime Udoka’s changing defense system. His ability to defend the wings helped make the Celtics the toughest defensive unit in the league.
AARON NESMITH: D reg., Inc. post. Nesmith said that despite his relegation to end-of-season and playoff emergencies, he remains extremely confident in his most important asset — a jump shot. Not only Nesmith claims that in practice they always fall. Coaches have said the same thing. The problem is in-game consistency, where Nesmith floundered for most of the regular season and shot 27% from 3-point range. As a versatile defensive player, the young winger has irrepressible energy and great upside. At the same time, this energy sometimes seems unchannelled. He has vowed to improve his game this summer, if not necessarily in the summer league where he has already played two games. The decision to forego Las Vegas worked for Grant Williams, who returned from summer 2021 in better form with an overall improvement in all aspects of his game. As always, the Celtics have to shoot. If Nesmith can finally translate their practical excellence into actual playability, then they may have an answer to these well-documented problems of depth.
PAYTON PRITCHARD: B alignment, C post. One of Brad Stevens’ biggest decisions at the close was to trade Dennis Schroder as a shooter because of his trust in Payton Pritchard. The sophomore guard gave them depth – especially in the regular season – and survived in the rotation not only for his good shooting quality but also for his surprising ability to keep fighting in Ime Udoka’s defensive system. As the playoffs dragged on and matchups became more difficult to manage, Pritchard’s playing time diminished. In the last three games of the final he shot 0:7.
MARCUS SMART: A reg., B-minus post. The NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year was there in all his mayhem during the playoffs while the Celtics maintained their defensive standard. But like Jayson Tatum and Brown, Smart was involved in the Celtics’ offensive collapse. Smart has done a lot this season to finally get the reins of starting point guard, and he couldn’t do much to save the Celtics when they shorted the stretch against Golden State. He could not prevent the offensive from being hijacked by isolation and stagnation. The Celtics spent far more time watching the ball and staying in place against Warriors cover, and a good chunk of responsibility for that rests with the point guard.
JAYSON TATUM: A reg., C-minus post. Tatum, in apparent distress after the Warriors’ elimination of the Celtics in Game 6, hung his head and spoke even more quietly than usual. He had just scored 13 points – two in the second half – in Game 6 against Golden State. Despite averaging 26 points in the last four games, he also shot 32% and racked up 23 turnovers in six finals games. More than most, Tatum was responsible for the loose ball security that doomed the Celtics. Udoka has said Tatum’s next big step is to become a better playmaker, but if he can return to the finals, this top-five player is expected to do a lot more to take his team to the top respectively. However, his incessant whining and political drive for calls will not get him and his team there.
DANIEL THEIS: B-Reg., C-Post. The return of the Veteran Backup Center was seamless. He gave Udoka another versatile big who could switch and occasionally hit open jumpers. Rob Williams’ increasing minutes and the need to play more small balls against Golden State resulted in a severe reduction in Theis’ time on the stretch. But he fits perfectly with how the Celtics use him.
DERRICK WHITE: B reg., C-minus post. As hard as it was to watch, Derrick White broke down on the sidelines in the last two games, shooting 1-for-10 in the face of some easy scoring chances. Not much earlier, White had gone on a run after the birth of his son Hendrix — the so-called “Dad Power” — and had two plus-20 scoring performances (22 in Game 6 vs. Miami, 21 in Game 1). vs. Golden State) before the slide began. Concerns about White’s shooting will linger, but he fits in seamlessly with whatever Ime Udoka wants. He’s a big, strong point guard both behind and alongside Marcus Smart and hasn’t been nearly as much of a problem as some teammates when it comes to making bad plays on the track.
GRANT WILLIAMS: A Reg., C Post. Williams lost weight last summer and returned strong and mobile enough to fit into Udoka’s Switch-heavy system. He increased his 3-point shooting to 41% and his attempts from 2.0 to 3.4 per game. He learned to attack close-outs and by the end of the season he was forcing his opponents to respect him in the turns. He peaked with 27 points in Game 7 against Milwaukee and slowly faded from view. Both minutes and production dropped in the last three games. He was also a key culprit in the Celtics’ constant bickering with officials – a tactic that didn’t do them any good in the long run. Williams is eligible for rookie extension this fall and based on his play before the Finals he should be making some money as a key play behind an aging Al Horford anyway.
ROB WILLIAMS: One registration, one post. Almost as much as his All-NBA teammate Tatum, Williams transformed the team last season, battling injury again to play a career-high 61 regular-season games. He had meniscus surgery in late March, made it back to Game 3 of Round 1 and gradually increased his minutes – with some breaks – and played the last 10 games against Miami and Golden State. The Celtics are elite when Williams is in the lineup. A legitimate contender for Defensive Player of the Year from that point forward. Also on track to become the most dynamic lob threat in the NBA. Summer is coming and a big therapy plan for his knee.
INC.: Sam Hauser, Luke Kornet, Malik Fitts, Juwan Morgan, Matt Ryan, Nik Stauskas, Brodric Thomas.
TRAINING: A reg., B-minus post. Udoka’s decision to tighten his rotation in the finals may have gone too far. According to the Celtics coach, his team was exhausted by the end of the series, losing three straight games for the first time since December 29. His defensive scheme in particular was brilliant in the first two rounds against the likes of Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and by Udoka’s own judgment the Celtics defended well enough to win. But his offense shattered into a mess of turnovers and isolation against a defense that was doing better than their own. The Celtics showed a lack of discipline and emotional control when the pressure was highest and that was due to both the coach and the players. But he built the stellar defense in the NBA and that will be their foundation. Udoka must now help his two young stars, Tatum and Brown, take their next steps as overpowering talents. You’re not quite there yet.
MANAGEMENT: A. Beginning with his ability to replace Kemba Walker’s contract with Al Horford, Brad Stevens has hit virtually every move this year. Deadline additions from Derrick White and Daniel Theis – and understanding when to cut the bait with Dennis Schroder – worked perfectly in the second half. Stevens’ next challenge is how best to complement his workforce through trade or freelance. He doesn’t need another star. He needs scoring depth.