The 2021-2022 Boston Celtics started the season performing below expectations. On January 7th, they were 18-21 and 11th in a strong Eastern Conference. Radioheads were calling for a potential split of stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to acquire a different star next to Tatum, such as Damian Lillard or Rudy Gobert. However, new general manager Brad Stevens and head coach Ime Udoka elected to stay the course.
The Celtics made some moves at the trade deadline but chose not to make significant shakeups to the roster. Josh Richardson, Dennis Schroeder, Enes Freedom, and Romeo Langford were swapped with Derrick White and Daniel Theis. With some momentum from before the deadline, the Celtics went on a scorching run over their last 43 games. The team went 33-10 to finish at 51-31 and the two-seed in the Eastern Conference.
While White and Theis helped, the most notable change was the in-season improvement from the key players who had already been on the roster. Jayson Tatum was one of the best players in the NBA during the Celtics’ run after a disappointing first half of the season, while Jaylen Brown’s play also significantly improved. Marcus Smart, who already was having a solid season by his standards, became an absolute menace on the defensive end on his way to winning defensive player of the year. Robert Williams, Al Horford, and Grant Williams all became reliable down the stretch (at least when R. Williams was off the injured list) to create a top six as strong as any team in the NBA. Advanced analytics loved the Celtics as they headed into the playoffs based on their great metrics, primarily because of their otherworldly defensive play that seemed sustainable.
Even as the 2-seed, many fans, and analysts were expecting an upset of the Celtics in the first round. They were facing off against the 7-seeded Brooklyn Nets with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the expected return of Ben Simmons. Simmons was traded midseason to the Nets from the Philadelphia 76ers and had not played all season because of mental health problems and a nagging back injury. The Celtics put the NBA and league on notice by sweeping the star-studded Nets 4-0. After winning game one on a Jayson Tatum layup with under one second left, the Celtics took control of the series. While each game was close, the Celtics could significantly limit both of the Nets stars’ production through stifling defense and produced enough scoring to quell any chance of Brooklyn coming back in the series. Ben Simmons never even returned.
The series win against the Nets set up a showdown against the defending NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks. Led by superhuman Giannis Antetokounpo, the Bucks would be a formidable opponent for the Celtics even without star guard Khris Middleton. The two teams alternated victories in the first six games of the series before the Celtics broke the streak with a convincing game seven win in TD Garden.
Coming off their thrilling win over the Bucks, the Celtics faced off against the 1-seeded Miami Heat, a team similar to themselves in many ways. The Heat provided a different type of roster than the Celtic’s previous two opponents as they had to always guard all five players on the court instead of keying in on one or two stars. The series started extraordinarily uncompetitive, with the winning team dominating games from the start in each of the first four games. After much ridicule from fans, the final three games of the series offered more excitement. Back and forth, Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum went trading blows. With under 20 seconds left in Miami, Butler missed a crucial three-pointer to push the Boston Celtics into the NBA Finals to face Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
The 2022 Boston Celtics are a true underdog story. They have fought through adversity to give themselves a shot at a championship many would call improbable even a few months ago. Everyone on the roster has stepped up into their role, playing through injury, sickness, and discomfort to give the Celtics the goal of winning four more games which would put an 18th Green Banner up in TD Garden.