When the Boston CelticsIt was January 23, when the Wizards were scheduled to play Washington's Capital One Arena. There was no indication that it would be the turning point in Boston's turbulent season.
The Celtics were coming off one their worst losses of the season. blowing a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead at homeTo the Portland Trail BlazersThey were also without a star point guard Damian Lillard.
Jayson TatumOver a span of four games, the team had missed 18 consecutive 3 point shots. The team's offense was in the NBA's bottom 10. The Celtics fell to 23-24 and 10th in the Eastern Conference — half a game ahead of the other teams. New York KnicksThe final spot in the playin tournament.
Boston appeared to be heading for the playoffs at least halfway through the season.
Then came the 116-87 demolition of the WizardsThe game saw Tatum score 51 to lift Boston to.500 in the season. Afterward, in the locker room Marcus SmartChange was already felt.
Smart says, “After that game we just had that mentality and mindset and that sense of urgency that we could feel that a shift was beginning.” It was easy sailing once we were on the right track.
The Celtics have been arguably the NBA’s best team since that time, finishing the regular season with a 28-7 record, offense (120.2 points per hundred possessions), and defense (104.8).
And, after sweeping Kevin Durant, Kyrie IrvingAnd the Brooklyn NetsBoston will have a chance to draw its East semifinal matchup with the current champion in the first round. Milwaukee BucksGame 4 will be played on Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET, TNT).
However, the most amazing midseason turnaround in NBA history did not begin on January 23. It started long before the final results were visible on the court.
Brad Stevens, president of basketball operations at the Celtics, said that he didn't believe anyone would have predicted it would take off as it did.
How Boston found its blueprint
Just seven games into the season, the Celtics reached their lowest point on Nov. 1. After blowing an 14-point lead to them, Chicago BullsIn the final frame, he outscored the Celtics by 39-11 Smart called out Boston's superstar wing tandem.
Smart stated that every team knew they were trying to reach Jayson and Jaylen. Every team has been programmed to stop Jayson or Jaylen. Everybody's goal in scouting is to get those guys to pass the ball. They don't want the ball.”
The moment was a milestone on a campaign, helmed for the second time by a trio talented perimeter players who had played in over 50 playoff games for Boston.
It became a distant reminder about the turnaround, and what finally started to click for Boston.
“We have a lot great guys on our team so it was just about figuring out how we could play together.” Grant Williams says. “Same with Ime” [Udoka, who is a]First-year head coach. We are all still learning how to be successful in the league and also to create the blueprint that the Celtics desire.
“As we grow, we have a better understanding of what we want and what we are.”
Some of the Celtics' first woes were beyond their control. Brown and Al HorfordHorford also missed large portions of training camp. Horford was also absent in December, after he signed the league's safety and health protocols. Smart entered protocol in January but missed six games.
Boston's poor shooting fortune was also reversed. Boston was 16th in Second Spectrum’s quantified shot probabilities through Jan. 22. It also showed up in some very ugly losses like the Celtics' worst catch-and shoot performance (since 2013) in a loss at the The. LA ClippersIn December. Boston jumped to second place in the league for quantified shot probabilities, beginning with the win in Washington during the regular season.
Udoka's preferred style was also well-suited by the Celtics.
Franchise had used part its trade exemption to land Josh RichardsonIn the offseason, and convinced Dennis Schroderto accept a significant pay cut in order to fill a bench role. Both are used to holding down the ball, which was exactly what Udoka was trying to change.
Schroder und Richardson were traded at the deadline — Schroder Enes Freedom, and Bruno FernandoFor Daniel TheisRichardson and Romeo LangfordFor Derrick White.
These actions paid immediate dividends, in particular Udoka's implementation of the free-flowing offense he had promised since his arrival last year.
Boston was 19th in the NBA for assists per game. 49.4% of their field goal goals were made off passes, which was 18th. Both categories saw Boston rise to seventh after the deadline.
“If I could choose the right guy to complement our group, it would have been [White],” Udoka says.
“He's an offensive player better than J-Rich and a better defender than Dennis so you can kind of combine those two guys.”
Boston's first lineup of Smart Brown, Tatum and Horford Robert Williams III had been elite. White brought in White and Grant Williams was given more time. Payton PritchardUdoka's game plan was reflected in the Celtics' eight-man bench rotation.
Smart states, “Early in the year we had guys trying out new roles.” We experimented with different roles, new guys and new faces. It was a lot. [Now]It is clear that connectivity is on the rise.”
Smart rises and Tatum is crowned.
It's easy for people to talk about the temporary things that are important, such as connectivity, teamwork, and togetherness. If they aren't paired with talent, those things won't win games.
An Eastern Conference executive recently stated that Jayson Tatum was becoming the player the rest of the world believed he was.
Even after some especially rough shooting over the first halfTatum finished the season scoring 26.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assist per game. His growth as a passer, and playmaker in the second half of the season was more important.
After the All-Star break, his assist numbers increased by almost one per game. Even earlier in the season Udoka lean into Tatum to be the primary ball handler after Smart and Brown left. Boston outscored his opponents by 12.2 points for every 100 possessions with him there, while Smart and Brown were off.
Udoka stated that the numbers were “off the charts” with him as a handler. “Seeing what he is, with his size and vision — it's obvious to me that it's a no-brainer.”
Smart has taken over as Boston's starting point guard. This was the final piece in Boston's transformation. Smart had long desired to fill this role.
Smart states, “I'm just happy I get to be in a place I'm good at.” Smart says that I wasn't as good in the other positions I held. It was just… It was just… I was doing just a little bit of everything.”
Although drafted by the Oklahoma State University as a point-guard in 2014, he has been able to play alongside several other point guards. Isaiah ThomasTo Terry RozierKyrie Irving Kemba Walker. Smart received the keys after Walker was traded to Horford last summer.
Udoka believes Smart could be the right player for his offense. Smart, he said, is unlike other guards who played with Brown and Tatum over the years. Smart is a pass first floor general.
“Marcus will do one his crazy-ass passes and he's like ‘I got',” Udoka said, raising his hand in imitation of Smart, who was apologizing for his bad play. It's like Manu [Ginobili]Situation with [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich].
“You need to accept him for who he really is, and allow him to have some craziness. What you should do is trust Marcus.”
A great defense becomes elite
Even though the Celtics were struggling in the early months of the season they still ranked fifth in defensive rating. After trading for White, Boston's top seven players — Smart Brown, Tatum and Horford, Robert Williams III and White — are all plusdefenders.
With all seven players at least 6-foot-4 and Williams, Williams, Horford, and Williams being center, the Celtics can expect a size advantage at nearly every position when all seven of their players are on the court together.
Boston was able to defend at 4.6 points per hundred possessions better than the second-place team. Miami HeatBetween Jan. 23 and the end, there is the same gap between the Heat & the Minnesota TimberwolvesIn 18th.
When Grant Williams was asked to describe Boston's defense, Grant Williams replied “Suffocating”.
“If you ask other players, this is how they describe it. Especially when everyone is in lock-in, everyone is doing their job. … Making half-court games against us. That's our strength.”
Durant suffered from a miserable first round by the Celtics, who held him to less than 40% of his series goals for the third time in their careers. They forced Giannis AntetokounmpoThe East semifinals saw 18-for-22 shooting in the opening two games. Boston often talks about physicality when discussing its defense. And the Celtics have used that core tenet with great enthusiasm in these playoffs.
It is far from the Boston of last year, when the Nets steamrolled it in five games.
White stated that “This team is probably the most defensive I have ever been on.” White said, “Just having guys out that are connected can guard multiple spots. This is how the NBA works today. For that to happen, you need guys.”
This is why Boston dreams of winning the championship banner No. 18 to the TD Garden rafters.
Stevens said, “I hope everyone's enjoying competing together because i think that we have an group that is moving towards one direction — no drama,” and that Stevens will continue to do so.
“I understand how fragile it can be. … So I believe that when the brightest light is on, it will be difficult to beat us.”