Jayson Tatum’s buzzer beater against the Nets
Given the opponent (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets), the situation (a razor-thin Game 1 in an opening round series), and the result, it’s easy to argue that Tatum’s last-second layup was the highlight of the season. Tatum’s first signature playoff moment since making that team his own meant Irving’s 39-point performance was wasted in front of an irate TD Garden crowd and ushered in the first-round win.
From forcing Durant into a fadeaway three to get a stop, to Ime Udoka’s decision not to take time out and let things unfold, to Marcus Smart wisely faking a three that every Celtic- Fan thought – and feared – that he was going to pull her up, towards Tatum spinning past Irving; it doesn’t get much better. Alongside his 46-point Game 6 to stave off elimination against the Bucks, it was Tatum’s best performance of the playoffs.
Smart is named Defensive Player of the Year
Boston’s bulldog point guard has long polarized the fan base loved by many for his defense, eagerness and basketball IQ, leaving others frustrated with his shot selection and often misguided confidence behind the 3-point line. But at the end of a career year, most were glad Smart got his due as he became the first guard to be named Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1996.
It was a crowning glory for one of the best backcourt defenders in the league, who was delighted to receive the award Strolling around TD Garden for Game 2 vs. the Nets in a boxer’s robe“DPOY” is emblazoned in gold lettering on the back.
Ime Udoka takes command
When Brad Stevens rose to the front office in place of Danny Ainge, the new basketball division president attempted to replace himself as coach with a new voice. Ime Udoka turned out to be just the guy.
After a difficult first half of the season, the team responded to Udoka’s no-nonsense style as he challenged his players en route to a major midseason turnaround that earned him a fourth-place finish for NBA Coach of the Year.
“There are times when I turn the ball over, and [Udoka] will pull me aside and say, ‘What the [expletive] do you? Get your team together!’” said Smart’s Jackie MacMullan of The Ringer. “I’m fine with it.”
Jaylen Brown’s first 50 point game
Brown is often Tatum’s second option and has proven multiple times this season that he can take over when needed, particularly with a 50-point breakout in a win over the Magic in January. There was no statistical padding here; Brown’s first gamble in more than half a century helped the Celtics charge back from a 14-point deficit in the final minutes and earn a thrilling overtime win.
The Al Horford Games
It was a magical playoff run for Big Al, making their first Finals in their 15th season, with the five-time All-Star at the center of several big victories just a year after he was shut down and freaked out by the slacking Thunder back to Boston in a pay hole for Kemba Walker.
From the moment Giannis Antetokounmpo drew Horford’s wrath in Game 4 Of Boston’s second-round series against the Bucks, Horford was brilliant, tossing in an efficient 30 points – a playoff career high at age 35 – punctuated by a blow-by-dunk on one of the game’s elite rim guards.
Horford added 26 points on 6 of 8 shots from deep to lead Boston to an unlikely comeback win in their Finals debut and was one of the few Celtics to appear in Game 6 of Golden State.
Tatum’s rise to MVP nomination, First Team All-NBA
Debates over Tatum’s “superstar” status will rage well into the summer, but it takes a special talent to trump Durant, like Boston’s cornerstone did in a Sunday afternoon win over the Nets in March.
Tatum poured in 34 of his 54 points in the second half to lead the Celtics to a 126-120 win, despite 37 points from Durant, Tatum’s fourth 50-point effort, the Larry Bird most in franchise history Association.
It was the opus magnum of a brilliant season for the 24-year-old, who took it to another level after the All-Star break, averaging 30.4 points on 50.6 percent shooting and 41.5 percent from three in the second half rose. He surpassed 50 points twice and 40 points five times and threw down his fair share of highlight reel dunksand played stellar defense in one of the league’s best units to earn a sixth-place MVP vote and his first-team All-NBA.
Despite his difficulties in the final, the 2021/22 season will go down in history as the one where Tatum rose to another level.
Brown underscores KG’s big night in style
There are many jams to choose from with Boston’s soaring wing, with an overtime poster on Charlotte’s Miles Bridges a strong contender, as is Brown forcing all-defense center Bam Adebayo to make a business decision in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Leading the pack, however, is Brown’s detonation over Dallas’ Maxi Kleber. The dribbling between the legs to split the defenders and the chest-to-chest slam ended with Kevin Garnett’s confirmation on the night of the retirement in the No. 5 shirt; This dunk could be the biggest breakthrough of the year.
Iso Joe, back for more
It’s been hard not to feel good about Joe Johnson’s surprise return to the COVID-ravaged Celtics on a 10-day contract, two months 20 years since they sold him to Phoenix in early 2002.
Three and a half years after his last NBA appearance, Johnson donned a suit in the closing minutes of a thumping win over Cleveland in December and saw the floor for a night, grabbing his elbow spot and sending the TD Garden crowd into a frenzy.
Deadline Day Trading
Boston’s midseason turnaround was well underway at close, but Brad Stevens’ final-day maneuvers cemented the Celtics as title contenders. He dropped guards Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder and PJ Dozier and opened the game for Payton Pritchard – averaging 4.8 points a game in a shadow over 12 minutes from time, 8.6 points in 17.4 minutes for the Rest of the way — and picked up Derrick White, who was very solid all the way and for much of the playoffs.
Stevens also added forwards Romeo Langford and Bol Bol, and parted ways with centers Bruno Fernando and Enes Freedom to bring back Daniel Theis, a much-improved backup option while pushing the Celtics $2.5 million below the luxury tax line.
Had Boston not won eight of the last nine and charged into the fray, it would be hard to tell if Stevens would have been as aggressive at the deadline, but everything broke right for him and the Celtics at the right time and the rest is history.
Amin Touri can be reached at email@example.com.