It was not too long ago when the Boston Celtics were buried.
On January 22, the Celtics were 23-24 and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. A play-in berth looked to be Boston’s best hope, a far cry from their three Eastern Conference Finals appearances in the past five years.
The message from first-year head coach Ime Udoka clearly was not resonating with his roster, as the offense mainly consisted of a “my turn, your turn” style between stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Many — yours truly included — were ready to throw in the towel on the duo, looking at possible trade destinations for Brown.
And then, everything changed.
In late January, the Celtics began to make a run, winning 9 in a row, allowing just 94.1 points per game during the stretch. And yet, there was hesitation with such a small sample size. While Boston beat some good teams during the stretch — Miami, Brooklyn, Denver, and Philadelphia — if you looked closely, the wins weren’t as impressive at second glance. Miami was without Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry, and Brooklyn was without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden. Wins over Charlotte, Orlando, Detroit, and Atlanta were nice, but nothing to get overly excited about.
But the winning didn’t stop. Boston went 26-6 to end the season, finishing the year as the top defensive team in the league. The Celtics midseason turnaround was historic according to ESPN Stats & Info — Boston finished with a .622 winning percentage.
Celtics through 41 games: 20-21 (.486 win pct)
Thursday: 46-28 (.622 win pct)
The Celtics are on pace to become the 3rd team in league history to be under .500 exactly halfway through the season and finish with a .600+ win percentage. pic.twitter.com/nzANBTwLtF
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 24, 2022
As the final day of the regular season approached, there was much talk about the Celtics avoiding the Brooklyn Nets, who many felt would be capable of making a deep playoff run with their two superstars and the potential of a Ben Simmons sighting in the postseason.
While Milwaukee and Philadelphia preferred to throw away their final game in order to avoid the Nets, Boston had no interest in ducking anyone.
“We said it quite openly that we weren’t running from anybody. We wanted to play our best basketball going into [the playoffs],” Udoka said. “Some teams did what they did on the last day, but we had to win. We aren’t scared of anybody and we aren’t going to run from anybody. If you want to win you have to go through everybody, so I think it was good to get a good test in the first round.”
That mentality paid off, as Boston put on a defensive clinic in the first round of the playoffs, sweeping Brooklyn, and sending them into an offseason of uncertainty.
Of course, there were those who felt the storyline of the series was the struggles of Durant and Irving, with many on social media saying that Durant was entering a new phase of his career, but that’s for people who aren’t watching basketball the way it should be watched. While yes, Durant and Irving struggled, it was the Celtics defense that deserved all the praise, frustrating Durant to a level NBA fans have never seen from the all-time great.
And now, Boston heads into its series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the defending NBA champions, and the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2022 NBA Finals.
Boston caught a major break earlier this week when it was announced that Milwaukee All-Star Khris Middleton is expected to miss the entirety of the series as he recovers from an MCL injury sustained in the Bucks first-round series against Chicago. Celtics big man Robert Williams III will be integrated back into the fold after returning to the court with a knee injury, giving Boston the opportunity to raise the bar defensively another level.
There’s no reason to believe that Boston will slow down anytime soon, as defense always travels, continuing an incredible run that started midseason when most had written them off.
Joe Morgan is the Sports Reporter for The Daily Wire. Most recently, Morgan covered the Clippers, Lakers, and the NBA for Sporting News. Send your sports questions to [email protected]
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.