This past year has been a year of change for the Boston Celtics. With that change came success.
A new president of basketball operations, a new head coach, and several new key players created a sense of rejuvenation within the franchise, which returned the team to its traditional position as a championship contender.
Today we look back at what went well for the Cs, having bounced back from a 36-36 campaign in the 2020-21 season and an 18-21 start to the 2021-22 season, before fight his way through the Eastern Conference and into the NBA Finals.
Here are our top five takeaways from the 2021-22 campaign:
Brown and Tatum reaffirmed they could play together
Amid the post-game mayhem following their game-changing Game 7 Eastern Conference Finals victory in Miami, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum searched for each other at half court and shared a long hug in celebration their first place in the NBA Finals. Little of what was said during that intimate moment could not be understood on the national broadcast, but as they moved in small circles, arms draped around each other, an exclamation of Tatum’s laughter came through clearly: “They said we couldn’t play together!”
During Boston’s early-season struggles, Brown and Tatum’s ability to co-exist had been a hot topic among national media talking heads, but the star duo were quick to silence them after an epic turnaround in mid-season and qualify for the final. While it’s true that some star pairs don’t work out, especially when playing in a similar position, these two have worked tirelessly over the past five seasons to build chemistry and benefit from their complementary skills.
Not only did they prove they could play together, but they repeatedly underlined how much they want to playing together for years. They took their motivation from all the negative outside noise earlier in the season and used it to fuel their run to the final. Now that they’ve established themselves as title contenders, they don’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
Smart is a legit main point guard
Brown and Tatum weren’t the only Celtics out to prove the doubters wrong. Marcus Smart had a chip on his shoulder all season long as he sought to show the world he could lead Boston’s offense as a primary point guard.
And show the world that he did.
It took Smart and the C’s a few months to get used to a new offensive system, but halfway through the season, they were rolling. After returning Jan. 23 from an injury layoff, Smart helped the Celtics to an NBA-best 28-7 finish while posting a league-high 120.3 offensive score.
Boston had the league’s fourth-best assist ratio during that streak, and Smart had a lot to do with it, posting a team and career-high 5.9 assists per game, including 6.5 during the second half of the season.
It’s been widely debated how the transition from three straight All-Star point guards to the man who backed those players could possibly be an upgrade, but this former backup has helped take the Cs further than any of these stars.
Smart has not only shown that he is capable of being the main playmaker of a conference champion team; he also proved that a player in his shoes could win Defensive Player of the Year. He became the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton in 1996, further solidifying himself as a complete starter.
Rob Williams is one of the top 5 rim protectors
Marcus Smart doesn’t think he’ll be the only member of that Celtics core to win Defensive Player of the Year. After winning the award, he predicted, “One day Rob will be in this position.”
It wasn’t too bold a prediction, as Rob Williams almost found himself in that position this season after earning his first All-Defensive selection as a second-team member.
The fourth-year center had a breakout campaign, leading the NBA in defensive rating with a 102.4 rating and finishing third in blocked shots with 134 despite missing a quarter of the regular season. He was on the inside what Smart was on the perimeter: a terrifying defensive presence, which opposing players did their best to avoid.
To say he is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA is an understatement. His career blocking percentage of 8.0 percent ranks third all-time since 1973-74, when the league began recording shot blocking data.
If Williams can be healthy enough to play a full season, he could very soon find himself in Smart’s shoes, holding that DPOY trophy.
Boston nailed its head coaching hire
Part of the reason so many Celtics players had career years was because they had a head coach who knows exactly how to get the most out of his students.
Players like Brown, Tatum, Smart and Williams wanted a coach who would hold them accountable, treat them as equals and lead them every day, and that’s exactly what they got from rookie head coach Ime Udoka .
The disciple of Gregg Popovich was tested early and often in his first season, but he stuck to his approach until the Celtics fully grasped his system and turned their season around. He also pushed his stars, called them out when they weren’t putting in the maximum effort, and thus hardened them into championship contenders.
Udoka was the only freshman NBA coach to win 50 games this season, the third Celtics rookie coach to reach that mark in franchise history, and the first Celtics coach to win back-to-back coaching awards. of the month since Doc Rivers during the 2007-08 Championship season.
Boston couldn’t have hired a more perfect candidate to lead their team, and Udoka’s impact should only grow stronger in Year Two.
President Stevens is not afraid to take bold action
The hiring of Ime Udoka was just one of many roster changes Brad Stevens made during his first year as president of basketball operations.
After Danny Ainge left his longtime role last spring, Stevens wasted no time in stepping in and tweaking the roster to his liking. He made a blockbuster trade upfront, dealing Kemba Walker and a first-round pick to Oklahoma City to bring Al Horford back. He then traded for Josh Richardson, signed Dennis Schroder to a beneficial deal and signed Rob Williams to an extension before the start of the 2021-22 season.
Stevens also wasn’t afraid to mix things up at the trade deadline, dealing a versatile ball-handler in Derrick White and reacquiring big man Daniel Theis – two moves that helped strengthen the Celtics in a final team.
When Boston had two pre-championship wins, Stevens outlined exactly what his team should add in the offseason to help them turn the corner: more play and more goals off the bench.
So what did he do? He came out and served both needs by trading for versatile combo guard Malcolm Brogdon and signing sniper Danilo Gallinari, while not giving up a single piece of last season’s rotation.
If Stevens made one thing clear in his first year in a leadership role, it’s that he’s not afraid to rock the roster. Not only is he willing to make changes, but he also knows how to make the right changes, as Boston’s long playoff streak proves.