The Boston Celtics are a confident bunch, and they should be. Since the end of January, they have put on a clinic and haven’t shown signs of slowing down.
The team is a far cry from its first few months under first-year head coach Ime Udoka. Through 50 games, the Celtics went 25-25. They had picked up right where they left off last season when they finished 36-36. Since Jan. 29, after a win at the New Orleans Hornets, the Celtics went 26-6 to finish the season 51-31.
They are playing with as much confidence as any team in the NBA. The second-seeded Celtics will likely put that confidence through a grueling challenge when the playoffs begin this weekend.
Boston Celtics confidence at an all-time high heading into the playoffs
Going 26-6 in the final two-plus months of the season should give any team confidence, especially after the start the Celtics had. Last year was frustrating for Boston, going .500 all year and getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Brooklyn Nets.
For much of this season, it was the same. Frustration boiled over early, peaking when Marcus Smart publicly called out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for being selfish with the ball. There were also multiple occasions when Udoka blasted the team for its lack of effort.
It was after blowing another big lead in early January when things began to turn around. The Celtics coughed up a 25-point lead and lost to the New York Knicks on an RJ Barrett buzzer-beater on Jan. 6. Udoka challenged the team’s mental toughness. Since then, they’ve been a completely different team.
“Some people liked it, some people didn’t,” Udoka said last month, per MassLive. “The team responded as they have all year, and we really said just stop messing around and giving up these leads. We had lost two or three 19-point leads, lost some games to Cleveland, Milwaukee on Christmas, Chicago early in there, and then the New York game. So turning point as far as us getting tired of losing the games that we had built up leads.”
Now, the Celtics believe they can beat anyone. Their hot streak is no fluke as they have just six losses since Jan. 29.
That Boston Celtics confidence will likely be put to a tough test
The Celtics could have laid down in the season finale Sunday night at the Memphis Grizzlies. In fact, it probably would have been beneficial had they done so. Should the Nets defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers in Tuesday’s play-in game, the Celtics will likely be faced with the Eastern Conference’s toughest road through the playoffs.
If the Nets win, Boston’s road will likely have to go through Brooklyn, the Milwaukee Bucks, and the Miami Heat (or Philadelphia 76ers). Had the Celtics lost to the Grizzlies, they would have slipped to the fourth seed and opened against the Toronto Raptors. In that scenario, they would have avoided a possible Bucks matchup until the Eastern Conference Finals.
Instead, the Celtics secured the No. 2 seed. Milwaukee played it safe, resting its players in Sunday’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston played its starters against a depleted Grizzlies team, which also rested its players, and cruised.
“We were worried about ourselves and getting some guys some reps,” Udoka said after the game, per ESPN.
That win over the Grizzlies — or the plan that went into it — shows how high Boston’s confidence is. The Celtics don’t care who they play. They feel they can get by anyone. They aren’t dodging anybody, including a Nets team that could be at full strength, with Ben Simmons’ return to action possible.
Celtics could face a possible first-round rematch with the Nets
Maybe it’s what the Celtics want. If the Nets, a heavy favorite, beat the Cavs on Tuesday, a revenge series is in place to begin at TD Garden on Sunday.
Kyrie Irving would return to Boston for the second straight year in the first round of the playoffs. Irving, high on the list of most-hated players by Celtics fans, made headlines a year ago when he stomped on the Celtics logo at midcourt after a postseason victory.
He made waves before the game, saying his return to Boston as an opponent wouldn’t trigger any racist comments from the fans.
“Hopefully, we can just keep it strictly basketball, you know there’s no belligerence or any racism going on, subtle racism, and people yelling sh*t from the crowd,” he said at the time.
That didn’t sit well with the fans, who booed him every time he touched the ball.
The Celtics could have chosen an easier path. They didn’t want to. A Celtics vs. Nets rematch is what most people want to see. Deep down, it might just be what those confident Celtics really want.