4/11/22 by Jackson Tolliver
On January 6, 2022, the Boston Celtics blew a 20-point lead in the third quarter against the New York Knicks, as R.J. Barrett ended the game with a buzzer-beating three-point shot. Their record fell to 18-21 on the year, and the team was in shambles.
On Sunday night, the Celtics beat the Memphis Grizzlies to finish the season with a record of 51-31, clinching the second seed in the Eastern Conference. That means that since that Knicks game, a point where fans thought we were doomed, the team has gone 33-10.
How did this miraculous turnaround happen? How did a team that seemed to be striving for consistent mediocrity become one of the favorites to win the NBA Finals? There is no single best answer, but here are some of the reasons that account for the Celtics’ second half success.
- Defense: The Celtics finished the season with the best defense in the NBA. They had the lowest average points allowed across the entire league with 104.5 ppg. Former head coach Brad Stevens was always known for his defensive intelligence, and the new boss, Ime Udoka, was able to piggyback off of a system that worked and improved upon it. The tactical change of having Robert Williams III focus primarily on help defense prevented opponents from driving in the paint, while the acquisition of guard Derrick White added another defensive-minded guard who previously worked under Udoka’s defensive schemes when he was on the coaching staff in San Antonio.
- Leadership: After a slow start to the season, many were calling for a breakup of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, arguing that the two superstars didn’t have a “team-first” attitude. Veteran Marcus Smart even called them out in a press conference after a collapse to the Chicago Bulls, calling on the two to be more mindful of their teammates and find the open man. For whatever reason, this narrative took an incredibly dramatic turn. Tatum emerged as an arguable top-five MVP candidate, while Jaylen Brown averaged 23.6 ppg and a career-high in assists. Marcus Smart is currently a true contender for Defensive Player of the Year, leading the league in loose balls recovered after what was likely his best season yet. Veteran Al Horford was able to provide a familiar, calming presence. Across the board, the team started to truly gel, as they even started giving each other superhero nicknames.
- Wins at the Trade Deadline. If you watched the Celtics before and after the All-Star Break, you would notice a significant difference in the roster. The Celtics were able to significantly reshape their roster, trading away seven players and only acquiring two, Derrick White, who I previously mentioned, and Daniel Theis, a former fan-favorite who has been able to seamlessly fill in while Robert Williams III recovers from a torn meniscus. Downsizing the rotation has allowed the Celtics to hyperfocus on particular players and play-styles, while making sure that each player has a unique role and skill set. The Celtics roster went from an overcrowded mess to a sharp and clean-cut system.