The Step Back: The puzzling case of the Boston Celtics

By Michael Wu

As a resident Boston sports fan, it’s come to that time where I’ll be doing a deep dive into the state of my team: the Boston Celtics.

The Celtics are truly a puzzling case. The past few years have been a continuous roller coaster where every year, I think they finally have a chance at making it past the Eastern Conference Finals. Every year, we come so close but somehow crumble under the pressure time and time again.

I entered this season with moderately high hopes that the green team could get a good enough seed to make a legitimate run in the playoffs. At the beginning of the year, I cringed at the TV as I watched a group that I thought had so much potential stumble through an awkward isolation play, miss wide-open shots and crumble below a .500 record.

That was in 2021. In 2022, the Celtics woke up. In a stunning example of the “new year, new me” mindset, the Celtics have been borderline unstoppable. Since Jan. 1, the team has the No. 1 ranked defense in the NBA, a top 10 offense and a 25–9 record. What led to this stunning turnaround for a team that once looked like it was going to fade into NBA purgatory?

The first: a new, revived style of gameplay. No longer are the Celtics a team built around isolation and disconnect, with individual players chucking up highly contested shots that lead to inevitable turnovers. Ime Udoka and the coaching staff flipped the script and now play with pace and space in a smaller, eight-man rotation that gets every player involved and motivated.

The second: a spectacular string of trades. In his inaugural season as general manager of the team, Brad Stevens already looks like a genius in the front office. At the trade deadline, Stevens traded for an underrated scorer and facilitator in Derrick White from the Spurs, bolstering a balanced playmaking scheme. Stevens traded for fan favorite and veteran Daniel Theis, who is making his second stint with the Celtics, adding size and hustle off the bench. He also traded away pieces to get under the luxury tax, setting up the team for more flexibility in the offseason.

The third: the emergence of Jayson Tatum as an MVP-caliber player. Yes, I said it. Tatum has always been a really good player with a unique talent for scoring. However, what I saw after his 54-point game against Brooklyn on March 6 was a player who, in addition to his scoring abilities, was on fire down in crunch time, got others involved and became a vocal and passionate leader who rallied the troops together to win. The emergence of Jayson Tatum as a poised leader is the single biggest factor of this team’s success.

The Eastern Conference is more wide-open than ever. With a plethora of very good teams, I can see many different scenarios playing out. However, if the Celtics continue to play how they have been playing as of late, they are good enough to beat anyone in this league. 

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