The Boston Celtics went into the 2021-22 NBA season with relatively modest expectations. They finished the previous season with a 36-36 record and got bounced from the playoffs in five games by the Brooklyn Nets. This led to Boston looking for changes in the front office, in which that change came in the form of Danny Ainge stepping down, Brad Stevens assuming the role as President of Basketball Operations, and Ime Udoka taking the vacant head coaching role following Brad’s promotion.
Udoka was personally picked by Stevens and the first time head coach came in with the mindset that he wanted to change the culture. He wanted his team to focus on team basketball and play hard defense. His main point of emphasis was for the players to hold each other accountable.
“The point I wanted to get across was I am not one of those coaches who won’t say anything to the superstars, but will get on the young guys and role players,” Udoka said. “That’s how you lose credibility.”
Along with this new philosophy, The C’s brought in a few new players. They brought in Josh Richardson in the hopes he could provide a spark off the bench, Dennis Schroder to add point guard depth, and Al Horford to fill the role as the veteran leader of the team once again.
All of these things added to the Celtics having higher expectations and it is fair to say that they exceeded those expectations. What makes the season remarkable is not that they exceeded preseason expectations, but rather how they exceeded those expectations.
The start of the season for the C’s couldn’t have gone worse. Through the first few months of the season, they dealt with injury problems from Jaylen Brown and Rob Williams, a few COVID-related absences, and Jayson Tatum was playing the least efficient basketball of his career. They were also the league’s worst fourth-quarter team and were prone to blowing sizable leads in the blink of an eye.
Even though Udoka’s preseason ideas generated excitement, it seemed that these Celtics couldn’t change and were prone to the same bad habits that last year’s team had. Every time they took a step forward, they seemed to take two steps backward and they were well on their way to another .500 season. The team seemed to be at rock bottom following another fourth-quarter collapse to the lowly Portland Trail Blazers that saw them drop to 23-24 on the season. Then, all of a sudden, things changed for the better.
Boston started dominating their opponents and won 11 of their last 13 games before the all-star break. It was hard to tell if this was a real turnaround of just a hot stretch. They tried to capitalize on this momentum and tweaked the roster just enough to fill some gaps in their team.
They then moved Richardson for Derrick White and flipped Schroder for Daniel Theis — two huge additions who have fit perfectly into the team. On top of that, everyone was able to stay healthy and Tatum exploded and put himself into the MVP discussion. It finally seemed as if Udoka’s system was working, it just took a little bit of time to come together.
The Celtics already had a good team defense even when they were struggling, but in 2022 they boasted the league’s best defensive team. They had the best defensive rating in the league as well as the best net rating since the turn of the new year.
All of these factors were key to their resurgence and led them to the biggest midseason turnaround in NBA history. They were just the third team in NBA history to be below .500 at the exact midpoint of the season and finish with a winning percentage of .600 or higher. They capped off this historic turnaround by being the only one of those three teams to finish with a win total of 51. They were also able to secure the two-seed in the Eastern Conference.
To accurately sum up this season for the Celtics, they have to be looked at as two different teams. Prior to the turn of the new year, they consistently blew big leads, lost close games, struggled to stay healthy, and seemed to be full of turmoil. After the turn of the new year, The C’s began to dominate teams, shed the reputation they had of blowing leads, and put together one of the leagues best defenses in a long time.
From an individual perspective, the Celtics will have a big imprint on most of the key NBA awards. Tatum was an MVP candidate and will likely find his way on first or second team All-NBA, Williams and Marcus Smart will be All-NBA defense selections, and Smart is the betting favorite to win the Defensive Player of the Year.
Udoka is a candidate for Coach of the Year and he deserves all the credit the world can offer, while it is clear that he challenges the players in a different way than Brad Stevens did — and the players have completely bought into his philosophy.
The Celtics will try to solidify their historic turnaround with a deep playoff run. Their playoff journey begins on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET as they take on the Brooklyn Nets.
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