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 core players created a sense of rejuvenation within the franchise, which returned the team to its traditional position as a championship contender.
Today, we’re taking a look back at what went right for the C’s, after they rebounded from a 36-36 campaign during the 2020-21 season and an 18-21 start to the 2021-22 season, before tearing their 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 Can Play Together
Amid the post-game chaos following their Game 7, Eastern Conference Finals-clinching win in Miami, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum sought each other out at mid-court and shared a long embrace to celebrate their first NBA Finals berth. Not much of what was said during that intimate moment could be made out on the national broadcast, but as they shuffled around in small circles, arms draped around each other, one laughing exclamation from Tatum came through clearly: “They said we couldn’t play together!”
During Boston’s early-season struggles, Brown and Tatum’s ability to coexist had been a hot topic among national media talking heads, but the star duo was quick to shut them up after an epic mid-season turnaround and run to the Finals. While it’s true that some star pairings don’t work out, especially when they play a similar position, these two have worked tirelessly over the last five seasons to build chemistry and benefit from their complementary skill sets.
Not only did they prove that they can play together, but they repeatedly emphasized how they want to play together for years to come. They drew motivation from all of the negative outside noise earlier in the season and used that to fuel their Finals run. Now that they’ve established themselves as title contenders, they have no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
Smart is a Legitimate Primary Point Guard
Brown and Tatum weren’t the only Celtics who were set on proving doubters wrong. Marcus Smart had a chip on his shoulder throughout the season, as he sought to show the world that he could lead Boston’s offense as its primary point guard.
And show the world he did.
It took a couple of months for Smart and the C’s to get used to a new offensive system, but by the midway point of the season, they were rolling. After returning Jan. 23 from an injury absence, Smart helped lead the Celtics to an NBA-best 28-7 finish while posting a league-high offensive rating of 120.3.
Boston had the fourth-best assist ratio in the league during that stretch, and Smart had a lot to do with that, posting a team- and career-best 5.9 assists per game, including 6.5 during the second half of the season.
It was widely wondered how transitioning from three consecutive All-Star point guards to the man who backed those players up could possibly be an upgrade, yet that former backup helped to carry the C’s farther than any of those stars had.
Smart didn’t just show that he was capable of being the primary playmaker on a conference champion squad; he also proved that a player in his position 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-package starter.
Rob Williams is a Top 5 Rim Protector
Marcus Smart doesn’t believe that he will be the only member of this 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 of a prediction, as Rob Williams almost found himself in that very position this season after earning his first All-Defensive selection as a member of the Second Team.
The fourth-year center had a breakout campaign, leading the NBA in defensive rating with a mark of 102.4 and finishing third in blocked shots with 134 despite missing a quarter of the regular season. He was to the interior what Smart was to the perimeter: a terrifying defensive presence, one which opposing players tried their best to avoid.
To say that he is one of the best rim protectors in the NBA is an understatement. His career block percentage of 8.0 percent ranks third all-time dating back to 1973-74 when the league started 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 why so many Celtics players had career years was that they had a head coach who knows exactly how to bring the best out of his pupils.
Players such Brown, Tatum, Smart, and Williams wanted a coach who would hold them accountable, treat them as equals, and drive them every single day, and that is exactly what they got out of rookie head coach Ime Udoka.
The Gregg Popovich disciple was tested early and often during his first season, but he remained steadfast in 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 giving max effort, and thus toughened them into championship contenders.
Udoka was the only first-year NBA coach to win 50 games this season, the third rookie Celtics coach to reach that mark in franchise history, and the first Celtics coach to win back-to-back Coach of the Month awards since Doc Rivers during the 2007-08 championship season.
Boston couldn’t have hired a more perfect fit to lead their team, and Udoka’s impact should only grow stronger in Year 2.
President Stevens Isn’t Afraid to Make Bold Moves
The Ime Udoka hire was just one of many roster moves that Brad Stevens aced during his first year as President of Basketball Operations.
After Danny Ainge stepped down from his long-time role last spring, Stevens wasted no time stepping in and altering the roster to his liking. He made a blockbuster trade right off the bat, dealing Kemba Walker and a first-round draft pick to Oklahoma City to bring back Al Horford. He then traded for Josh Richardson, signed Dennis Schroder on a bargain deal, and signed Rob Williams to an extension all before the 2021-22 season began.
Stevens wasn’t afraid to mix things up at the trade deadline either, dealing for a versatile ball handler in Derrick White and reacquiring big man Daniel Theis – two moves that helped to bolster the Celtics into a Finals team.
When Boston came up two wins short of the championship, Stevens stated exactly what his team would need to add in the offseason to help get them over the hump: more playmaking, and more scoring off the bench.
So what did he do? He went out and addressed both needs by trading for versatile combo guard Malcolm Brogdon and signing elite sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari, all while not giving up a single piece from this past season’s rotation.
If Stevens made one thing clear during his first year in an executive role, it’s that he’s not afraid to shake up the roster. Not only is he willing to make changes, but he also knows how to make the right changes, as proven by Boston’s deep playoff run.