BOSTON (AP) — The Celtics pulled off an NBA Finals run no one saw coming, rising from a team that was three games under .500 under a first-time head coach in early January to win the franchise’s 18th championship with two wins.
After those hopes were dashed in the fog of three straight losses to champions Golden State Warriors, Boston’s young core vows to use the pain as motivation for the offseason. Despite not winning, the Celtics have established themselves as one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
“The most important message was to learn from it, to grow from it, to have this experience and to see that there is another level that you can reach,” said coach Ime Udoka after the defeat on Thursday evening. “Just don’t come back like players, coaching staff. Let that drive you through the off-season into next year.”
When Udoka took over the coaching role from Brad Stevens last offseason, the Celtics were a team in transition.
Stevens, it seemed, had taken the Celtics as far as they could in eight seasons on the bench. He led Boston to three conference finals but couldn’t help his youthful core, led by budding All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, get over the hill.
This is where Udoka comes in, who did just that in Year 1. He challenged the team and used the experience of veterans like Marcus Smart and Al Horford to slowly mold a culture built on defense and selflessness on offense.
It paid off in the second half of the season as the Celtics turned a season-ending 18-23 record into a 51-31 mark, good enough to claim second place in the East. After a win over Brooklyn, followed by wins in seven straight games against defending champions Milwaukee and top seeded Miami, Boston seemed unstoppable.
The Celtics took an early 2-1 lead against Golden State in the Finals, but ultimately couldn’t shake their penchant for self-inflicted errors against the Warriors.
The Celtics were 1-7 in the playoffs when they committed 16 or more turnovers. They hit the bull’s eye in three of their four final defeats.
Tatum was shockingly inconsistent, averaging 22 points but only shooting 44 of 120 (37%) from the field. He was 5 of 13 from the field with 12 points in the decider Game 6 in Boston.
Worse, Tatum became the first player in NBA history to have 100 turnovers in a single postseason.
However bitter, he said he was embracing the lessons he had learned.
“It’s hard. It’s hard to get to this point,” Tatum said. “It’s even harder to get over the hump and win it. It’s been a long journey, a long process. Here’s what I took away from it: It’s tough. You have to take it to another level to do what we want to do.”
The good news for Boston is that their coach experienced both extremes of the finals. He was a freshman-year assistant under Gregg Popovich when San Antonio lost to Miami in the 2013 Finals, and there the following year when the Spurs beat the Heat to clinch the title.
“We’ve improved in many areas, but missed our ultimate goal,” said Udoka. “Some guys didn’t do their best. That will motivate the boys throughout the season. The message is that everyone comes back better. Let’s not be satisfied. It is not guaranteed that you will be here.”
Tatum grimaced and intermittently held his right shoulder throughout the Finals, a product of the Stinger injury he sustained in the Conference Finals against Miami.
He played through the pain in the final but also insisted it wasn’t a factor in his performance.
As of now, he has no plans for surgery.
CHANGE OF GUARD?
One of the biggest questions this summer will be what Stevens, who is completing his first year as president of basketball operations, is up to at the point guard.
Kemba Walker’s trade last offseason and Dennis Schroder’s demise this season put the blame in Smart’s hands. He excelled at times, but his defensive mindset hurt a team that sometimes cried out for a true ground general to open the ground for the Boston shooters.
Replacing him would be a difficult decision as he is also Boston’s emotional leader.
Smart, who is signed until the 2025/26 season, is only focused on helping the team that drafted him in 2014 improve.
“Were young. … The things we went through to get here showed us what we need to do for ourselves going forward,” he said. “I think that’s why we’re looking to the future with confidence. We all know what the goal is in the future.”