16 equals 18.
16 wins to raise Banner 18. That’s the focus now.
The 82-game roller coaster ride has come to an end. There were ups and downs. Thrills and disappointments. And much like a real roller coaster ride, you might have felt like you were going to puke at times.
But now, that’s all in the past.
16 equals 18 now.
On New Year’s Eve, something clicked for the Celtics. They were 16-19 and playing the best team in the NBA without Jayson Tatum. But Boston dug deep and beat the Phoenix Suns that afternoon. From that point forward, the Celtics went 35-12 and never looked back.
The defense, which was playing pretty well, took steps forward that day. A month or so later, with the additions of Derrick White and Daniel Theis, the defense took a leap.
· 1st in the NBA in Defensive Rating
· 1st in the NBA in Opponent’s FG%
· 1st in the NBA in Opponent’s 3P%
· 1st in the NBA in Opponent’s 2P% (the only team in the league hold opponents under 50%)
The Celtics defense wasn’t just good, it was dominant. Most nights, at some point early in the third quarter, Boston would collectively say “Let’s finish this” and put the clamps on.
At the end of the year, the Celtics finished +0.1 points behind those same Suns, of the 64-18 record, for the top scoring differential in the NBA.
But as nice as all those numbers are, they don’t matter anymore.
16 equals 18 now.
How do you get to those 16? By backing all those numbers up. Brad Stevens said he want to build a team Boston can be proud of. Mission accomplished.
Stevens eye for talent and fit, combined with Ime Udoka’s tough love and hard coaching, created a juggernaut. It just took a little while for that cake to finish baking.
Udoka said in the preseason that the defense was the focus first. Only after Udoka’s defensive system was mastered would the Celtics turn to the offense. That gave Boston the proper mindset.
You’re going to have bad offensive nights. Sometimes shots won’t fall. Sometimes you never get the right feel. Sometimes the other team is just ready to shut you down.
But the defense should never falter. A good defense is something you can lean on, even when the offense goes awry.
But to be a good defense you have to be tough. You have to work. You have to have some grit.
You need to be willing to step in and take a charge, even if you know it’s going to hurt. You need to switch and move your feet on the perimeter to contain a tricky ballhandler. You need to take on bigger players in the post and hold your ground.
But when you know the other four guys on the court, and all the guys on the bench, are making the same sacrifices you are, it becomes easier.
You not only welcome the contact, you come to crave it. You start to deliver the hits vs just absorbing them. When you get knocked down, you know your teammates are going to pick you up and tell you to do it again.
When you look across the court and see your opponent’s shoulders slump, their legs weary and their eyes tired, you know you’ve got them.
But that’s when the Celtics amp up the pressure even more. There’s no let-up. Get them down, keep them down, celebrate. Wash, rinse, repeat.
That mindset, one of toughness, grit, desire and drive, is earned. It’s not given. It can only be forged over months of hard work and tireless effort.
That’s part of how you make 16 equal 18.
Once the defense was locked in, Ime Udoka turned to the offense. Gone was the ISO ball that Udoka promised to banish at his introductory press conference. In was an up-tempo offense that focused on moving the ball to get the right shots at the right time, not just any shot by the sometimes right person.
The Celtics are still built around the singular offensive talent of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. But as Udoka and Brad Stevens said, the goal is to enhance those two stars. To build them up by fortifying the base around them.
Again, mission accomplished.
Tatum and Brown turned in terrific offensive seasons. But Marcus Smart became the point guard he was always destined to be and is now the Celtics leader on defense and offense.
The much-maligned double-big lineups worked to a charm, because of the versatility of Boston’s bigs, plus the creativity of Udoka.
Payton Pritchard and Grant Williams both finished the year as dead-eye shooters off the bench. Derrick White’s herky-jerky style of pushing pace, while also meandering to his spots was exactly what the Celtics needed.
No, the offense isn’t at the same levels of the defense. But it’s not far behind. Boston finished top-10 in both offense and defense this season. That’s something almost every recent champion has done.
That’s part of how you make 16 equal 18.
But to get to the Finals, let alone win a title, you need more than just a good offense and a good defense. You need a little luck along the way too.
Robert Williams got hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The team is preparing to play without Williams in the first round, but the Celtics aren’t ruling him out yet either.
The no back-to-backs nature of the playoffs isn’t really luck, but it’s going to help Boston immensely too. Al Horford powered through some stuff at the end of the year, mostly with his back, but with nearly a week off before Game 1, Horford says he’ll be fine.
The rest of the Celtics, to a man, have said “We’re ready to play”. That’s ready to play whoever, wherever, whenever.
Boston could have done some shenanigans to get themselves into a seed to avoid Brooklyn Nets in the first round. They could have worked themselves into a matchup with the weaker Chicago Bulls, or potentially even into a weird matchup against the Toronto Raptors. But the Celtics chose to play to win and to likely play the nets.
That’s who this group is. As Ime Udoka said “It’s about us.”
The Celtics don’t care who they have to play. This group now believes they’ll win, no matter who the opponent is.
It’s about them being the best version of the Boston Celtics they can be, and believing that’s enough to win. That supreme belief that they can get it done against whoever, wherever, whenever.
That’s how you make 16 equal 18.