Crow: The Celtics are finally the team they were supposed to be
Matthew Crow | Friday, February 18, 2022
As the calendar shifted to 2022, the Boston Celtics were at a crossroads. After reaching three Conference Finals in four years, they seemed well-positioned to be a top team for years to come. However, their upward trajectory was put into serious doubt during the 2020-21 season, as they slogged their way to a middling 36-36 record before quickly exiting in the first round of the playoffs. Standing at 17-19 heading into the new year, it began to feel like last season’s disappointment was not merely a singular down year, but rather the start of a troubling trend.
The good faith built up from previous years’ consistent success was gone. Fans and prominent media members alike called for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to be split up and said that they could not coexist. They lacked the ability to make their teammates better, and they would never lead a team to a championship. It wasn’t just that the Celtics were losing, it was how they were losing. They frequently blew 20-point leads with lackadaisical effort. They were one of the worst clutch teams in the league, and their offense often felt far too stagnant and isolation-heavy. There were even some who believed that the team should fire rookie head coach Ime Udoka before he finished his first season.
Jump forward to today and the Celtics have suddenly found themselves on a tear. They enter the All-Star break having won nine games in a row before a surprising slip-up against the Pistons. During that stretch, they became the first team in NBA history to win three consecutive road games by at least 30 points, highlighted by Tuesday night’s 48-point obliteration of the division-rival 76ers. Since January began, they have posted the best record in the Eastern Conference and the best net rating in the entire NBA. So how did they manage this turnaround, and is it just a flash in the pan or a true harbinger of what’s to come?
According to the popular narrative, it all began on January 31st with a seemingly innocuous, if somewhat cryptic, tweet from Jaylen Brown: “The energy is about to shift.” The national sports media has since latched onto Brown’s tweet as the inciting moment for Boston’s resurgence (as the team proceeded to win their next eight games). But while it’s nice to be able to point to one specific moment when everything changed, the true impact of the message is debatable. For one, Brown himself has said that his tweet was not referencing the team. But beyond that, the Celtics strong stretch of play actually began several weeks prior, and there are legitimate reasons for this improvement.
The most important factor might simply be health. Over the past few seasons, fans have not-so-affectionately dubbed the team the “Hospital Celtics” due to them being constantly decimated by a high number of injuries and Covid-related absences. The winning streak coincided with a rare clean stretch of health, and it seems likely that the team can continue their winning ways if they stay healthy.
Improvement on the defensive end has also played a major role. The Celtics had been solid defensively all season, but over the past few weeks, they have really embraced their defense-first identity and heightened their intensity as a unit. This commitment has surely paid off; they have allowed an outrageous 11.3 points per 100 possessions fewer than the league’s second-best defense since January 23rd.
They have also gotten standout play from key role players, specifically their pair of Williamses. Robert Williams III has flourished in his first year as a full-time starter, leading the NBA in field-goal percentage while doubling as one of the league’s most intimidating rim protectors. Grant Williams has simultaneously emerged as a highly efficient shooter and a versatile hub defensively.
Finally, the Celtics made several savvy trades at last week’s deadline, notably acquiring guard Derrick White and forward Daniel Theis in exchange for packages headlined by Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson. While Schröder and Richardson were solid contributors off the bench, the new additions are much better fits for the defensive-oriented Celtics, as White and Marcus Smart now form the league’s stingiest backcourt tandem. The addition of Theis ensures that the team’s rotation consists entirely of elite defenders.
Overall, it feels like what the Celtics needed most was time. Time to learn and embrace Udoka’s system on both sides of the court, time to get healthy and time for the front office to make the aggressive moves needed to push the team over the edge. The new Celtics are playing team-oriented offense coupled with hard-nosed and gritty defense and are having fun doing so. Most importantly, they are winning games, and in a wide-open Eastern Conference with no clear favorite, there’s no reason why it can’t be them in the NBA Finals come June.