Remember when the Boston Celtics lost to the New York Knicks on opening night in October?. Yeah, neither do I. When looking back at their regular season in totality, it’s a tale of two stories.
Just seven games into the 2021-2022 season, we saw the Celtics blow a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to the Chicago Bulls, which led to point guard Marcus Smart speaking out about how the Celtics were playing.
“Every team knows we are trying to go to Jayson [Tatum] and Jaylen [Brown], and every team is programmed and studies to stop Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said. “I think everybody’s scouting report is make those guys try to pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball and that’s something that they’re going to learn. They’re still learning and we’re proud of the progress they are making but they are going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team.”
Some saw these comments as a sign that this season was headed towards disaster for the Celtics and it looked that way for the rest of 2021. Before the end of the year, they had a record of 17-19 and were ninth place in the eastern conference standings. Looking back, as soon as the clock hit midnight on January 1, it seems like every Celtic player and fan wished for one of the most remarkable 180-degree turns in NBA history.
Well, whatever voodoo magic they used, worked. The Celtics tallied win after win, going 34-12 after the 17-19 start. Tatum seamlessly rose into the upper echelon of superstardom and etched his name into the MVP conversation by averaging just under 27 points and eight rebounds a game. Meanwhile, Brown continued to be his right-hand man, averaging 23.6 points and 6.1 rebounds a game.
However, the Celtics’ climb to the second seed and eventual Eastern Conference Champions cannot be told without their defense. The Celtics finished the regular season with the best defensive rating (106.2) in the league and were second in points allowed per game at 101.
Their defense was the best in the league, even with their defensive anchor, center Robert Williams, in and out the lineup due to injuries. Out of the 61 regular-season games that Williams played in, the Celtics went 40-21 and have gone 7-4 with him in the playoffs.
Another component to the Celtics’ defense, if not the biggest, has been Smart. With a Defensive Player of the Year award that seemed to be heading towards a center or small forward for the majority of the year, Smart managed to be the first guard since Gary Payton in 1996 to take home the award.
One player who has been a bit of a surprise for the Celtics during the postseason has been Grant Williams. Williams first stood out in the Celtics’ first-round matchup versus the Brooklyn Nets, where he helped slow down one of, if not the greatest scorer in NBA history, Kevin Durant. Williams’ defense was the most physical defense we had seen versus Durant in a while and that physicality didn’t allow Durant to get into a rhythm.
Even with that all in mind, the Golden State Warriors are not like any other opponent this group has faced thus far. They are a team that is almost always synced and if the Celtics’ defense is hesitant for even a second, the Warriors will make them pay.
The biggest key for the Celtics in the Finals is health. Robert Williams is dealing with left knee soreness that has him day-to-day, while Smart is dealing with an ankle injury that seems to be getting better as time progresses. With Smart most likely being the prime defender on Stephen Curry and Williams being the main deterrent at the rim, the Celtics will have to hope and pray that the pair get in the right place physically.