Boston Celtics: After an Ugly Start, Banner No. 18 Is Within Reach

Back in December, Banner No. 18 was on nobody’s mind. There were, however, many questions on the minds of Boston Celtics fans. Did they make the right move in hiring Ime Udoka as their new coach? Can Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ever lead the Celtics to a championship? Can the two stars co-exist?

If you answered “no” to any or all of those questions in 2021, you weren’t alone.

Something happened in January. Something clicked. It’s tough to pinpoint exactly what or when it was. The Celtics got hot. They became the best team in basketball over the last three-plus months of the season, and they’re still sizzling. Suddenly, nobody’s questioning the team or the coach, and championship banner No. 18 is just eight wins away.

The Boston Celtics grew frustrated but also grew up

Celtics guard Marcus Smart celebrates after he hit a fourth-quarter three-pointer against the Milwaukee Bucks.
| Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Before the calendar turned to 2022, the Celtics played some ugly basketball. Udoka came in to replace Brad Stevens, who replaced Danny Ainge as president of basketball operations. It looked like Ainge made the right move when he retired in the offseason. With Tatum and Brown, the Celtics went 36-36, and the Brooklyn Nets sent them home quickly with a first-round playoff loss, ending an ugly 2020-21 season.

Things didn’t get any better in the early part of the 2021-22 season. Through 50 games, the Celtics remained mediocre with a 25-25 mark.

Players grew frustrated. Marcus Smart publicly called out Tatum and Brown for their selfish play after blowing a big second-half lead against the Chicago Bulls. On several occasions, Udoka questioned his team’s effort as more blown leads came about.

Then January happened.

The early part of the month was the same — a blown 24-point lead to the New York Knicks that came on the heels of a loss to the San Antonio Spurs when Brown missed a game-tying layup in the final seconds. The loss to the Knicks may have been rock bottom for the Celtics, who were 18-21 after the game. Udoka questioned the team’s mental toughness after that game when RJ Barrett banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to seal the Celtics’ loss.

In March, Udoka said that Knicks game may have been the turning point.

“Going 21-6 in those 27 since that game, we had lost back-to-back on a missed layup against San Antonio and then obviously giving up the big lead to the Knicks and Barrett hitting the game-winner at the buzzer. And so I challenged their mental toughness.”

The Boston Celtics got hot and never looked back

After that Celtics loss to the Knicks, they played them two days later in the second game of a back-to-back. Boston held New York to 75 points in a convincing 99-75 victory. It was the first of three straight wins. Then they put together a pair of two-game mini-streaks before rattling off nine straight victories from Jan. 29 to Feb. 15.

Since their 25-25 mark, the Celtics ended the regular season with a 26-6 mark. A team that didn’t even know if the playoffs were a possibility earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference on the final day of the regular season.

In the first game of the playoffs, the Celtics nearly went back to their old ways when they built up a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets, only to see it disappear. They rallied from a five-point deficit and pulled out the Game 1 victory when Tatum hit a layup at the buzzer.

Victory was sweet, especially after what Boston went through to get there.

“(The win) was fulfilling for us,” Smart said during his postgame press conference. “Especially because of the way we started this year off. Those types of games we would have lost. We probably would’ve crumbled. For a moment there, it kind of looked like that was the direction it was going.

“The resilience that we have, the approach that we have, and the work that we put in to make sure that doesn’t happen, and just learning. Unfortunately, we had a lot of games to learn from with those types of incidents. Everybody did their jobs.”

Can the Celtics finally get over the hump?

This is the fourth time in six years that the Celtics have been to the Eastern Conference Finals. During that stretch, they’ve never made it to the NBA Finals.

Oddsmakers favor the Celtics. Although Miami is No. 1, many believe the Nets and Bucks are more talented, and the Celtics already sent them home.

Tatum and Brown are hungry. This is their time to shine. It’s a relatively young group that’s likely to stick together for some time. Getting past the Heat would be a huge step for Tatum and Brown.

Nobody is publicly calling this a revenge series after the Heat knocked them out two years ago. Newcomer Derrick White did hint that there may be some talk of that going on behind the scenes.

“I’m just listening to the stories that some guys had from that past,” White said during a press conference. “A lot of them have been to the Eastern Conference Finals but haven’t been past it. We’re looking to change that.

“They were disappointed they lost (in 2020), but they’re looking to get some payback for that. I’m happy to be a part of that.”

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