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The season that was

The 2021-2022 Celtics astonishing road to The NBA Finals.

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Boston Celtics Vs. the Miami Heat at FTX Arena Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The Celtics play Game 1 of the 2022 NBA Finals tonight. I couldn’t imagine typing that sentence during the grim December and January days when another game meant another fourth quarter collapse. Before the season, even the most green-blooded homers wouldn’t have predicted this team would make The Finals over the defending champion Bucks, the retooled Heat, or the perennial-favorite Nets. But the Celtics beat all three to make their first Finals in 12 years.

In CelticBlog’s season preview, the predictions ran the gamut from a 43-win play-in team to a 58-win Eastern Conference Finals team (shouts to Bill Sy and Jesse Cinquini for correctly predicting their 51-31 record). After a perplexing, infuriating, uninspired first half of the season, Boston made an unprecedented in-season improvement and became the league’s most dominant team. Ahead of tonight’s Finals matchup against Golden State, here’s a look back on the crazy 2021-2022 season.

10/20/21 @ New York Knicks (L) 134-138 (0-1)

10/22/21 Toronto Raptors (L) 83-115 (0-2)

10/24/21 @ Houston Rockets (W) 107-97 (1-2)

10/25/21 @ Charlotte Hornets (W) 140-129 (2-2)

10/27/21 Washington Wizards (L) 107-116 (2-3)

10/30/21 @ Washington Wizards (L) 112-115 (2-4)

11/1/21 Chicago Bulls (L) 114-128 (2-5)

Poised to improve their 41-41 2020-2021 record, Brad Stevens took the reins as GM and prized longtime assistant coach Ime Udoka replaced him on the bench. They traded Kemba Walker and their 2021 pick for Al Horford and Moses Brown, turned Brown into Josh Richardson, and signed Dennis Schroeder at a bargain bin contract. They also reacquired Enes Kanter, who soon changed his name to Enes Freedom. Anyone else completely forget about him?

But new season, same problems. They lost their first game to the Knicks and got walloped by Toronto in the home opener. After that Raptors loss, Ime Udoka publicly criticized the team in a way Stevens never did, saying, “I felt they basically came out and punked us, outplayed us, played harder than us, all the things we talked about.”

Philadelphia 76ers Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

On November 1st, the Celtics led by 19 against the Bulls with late in the third quarter but inconceivably lost the game by 14. Marcus Smart called out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown after the game, saying, “I think everybody’s scouting report is to 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,” causing a tidal wave of discussion on whether the team chemistry was broken.

What followed was a players-only meeting that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said was “not a terribly productive meeting, maybe not even beneficial,” while adding, “there are issues with this team and this group that have been going on for a while.” Even our fearless leader, Jeff Clark, declared that this team was bad. All the pre-season optimism quickly dried up.

11/3/21 @ Orlando Magic (W) 92-79 (3-5)

11/4/21 @ Miami Heat (W) 95-78 (4-5)

11/6/21 @ Dallas Mavericks (L) 104-107 (4-6)

11/10/21 Toronto Raptors (W) 104-88 (5-6)

11/12/21 Milwaukee Bucks (W) 122-113 (6-6)

Four wins in five games. Much better. They held the 6-1 Heat to 35 percent shooting in a much-anticipated national TV game and got revenge over the scrappy Raptors. Their only loss came courtesy of a Luka Doncic buzzer beater after Marcus Smart carelessly fouled him on the last possession, allowing Dallas to take the final shot.

Around this time, many were placing the early season blame on Smart. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith declared that the team needed a “real” point guard. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Boston was involved in Ben Simmons trade talks. Although they were playing better basketball, nobody took this team seriously.

11/13/21 @ Cleveland Cavaliers (L) 89-91 (6-7)

11/15/21 @ Cleveland Cavaliers (W) 98-92 (7-7)

11/17/21 @ Atlanta Hawks (L) 99-110 (7-8)

11/19/21 Los Angeles Lakers (W) 130-108 (8-8)

11/20/21 Oklahoma City Thunder (W) 111-105 (9-8)

11/22/21 Houston Rockets (W) 108-90 (10-8)

11/24/21 Brooklyn Nets (L) 104-123 (10-9)

11/26/21 @ San Antonio Spurs (L) 88-96 (10-10)

11/28/21 @ Toronto Raptors (W) 109-97 (11-10)

12/1/21 Philadelphia 76ers (W) 88-87 (12-10)

12/3/21 @ Utah Jazz (L) 130-137 (12-11)

12/4/21 @ Portland Trail Blazers (W) 145-117 (13-11)

12/7/21 @ Los Angeles Lakers (L) 102-117 (13-12)

12/8/21 @ Los Angeles Clippers (L) 111-114 (13-13)

12/10/21 @ Phoenix Suns (L) 90-111 (13-14)

Another month of uninspired basketball left people questioning whether the Jays could play together. They could beat bad teams like the Thunder and Rockets but couldn’t handle their business against playoff teams like the Nets and Jazz. They committed 22 turnovers in a December 8th loss against the Clippers (who were missing Paul George), then got throttled by the Suns to finish a disappointing road trip.

Despite missing Jaylen Brown for 10 games during this stretch, the low energy play didn’t deserve any excuses. Udoka gave quotes to the media like, “The effort and inconsistency is frustrating at times,” and “Everybody is worried about their game and getting themselves going instead of what’s best for the team and playing together.”

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

An ESPN’s Tim Bontemps article had one executive saying, “They’re stuck in neutral — and maybe going backwards,” and a Western Conference Scout stated, “Jaylen and Jayson aren’t making anyone better.” The Celtic-loyalist and NBC Boston’s Chris Forsberg declared that “change feels inevitable.” The Boston Globe’s Chris Gasper, while no basketball expert, mirrored a prevailing sentiment that their star duo needed to be broken up.

12/13/21 Milwaukee Bucks (W) 117-103 (14-14)

12/17/21 Golden State Warriors (L) 107-111 (14-15)

12/18/21 New York Knicks (W) 114-107 (15-15)

12/20/21 Philadelphia 76ers (L) 103-108 (15-16)

After beating the healthy Bucks, staying competitive with the 24-5 Warriors, and holding off a second half rally against the Knicks, they allowed Embiid to score 17 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter and went back under .500. Tatum was shooting under 42 percent from the field, and ESPN’s Bobby Marks (among others) believed that the Celtics should consider trading Jaylen for the Blazers’ Damian Lillard.

12/22/21 Cleveland Cavaliers (W) 111-101 (16-16)

12/25/21 @ Milwaukee Bucks (L) 113-117 (16-17)

12/27/21 @ Minnesota Timberwolves (L) 103-108 (16-18)

As every team was losing players to Omicron, the Celtics were losing games in increasingly frustrating ways. First, they blew a 19-point lead against Milwaukee. Then, against a Minnesota team that was missing all five starters, they inexplicably lost to Jaylen Nowell (29 points), Nathan Knight (25 points), and former Celtics legend Greg Monroe, who was playing in his first of seven games for four different teams. Sure, they were missing Tatum and Smart, but this was still the low point of the season thus far. The most exciting moment of this stretch was Joe Johnson making his long-awaited Celtic return during a Cavs game and hitting a garbage time elbow jumper.

12/29/21 Los Angeles Clippers (L) 82-91 16-19

12/31/21 Phoenix Suns (W) 123-108 17-19

After the Minnesota loss, Al Horford made a statement about everyone, “having to look in the mirror.” Jaylen Brown, when asked about it, responded, “no comment.” The Celtics were a disjointed team, and it showed after a dismal loss to the Clippers. They shot 35 percent, allowed Eric Bledsoe to torch them in the 4th quarter, and fell to 16-19.

But on December 31st – a day when Celtic legend Sam Jones passed away at age 88 – Boston had its best game of the season, beating the top-ranked Suns, scoring 123 points on 28 assists. As we found out later, this surprising win was widely considered the turning point of the season.

1/2/22 Orlando Magic (W) 116-111 (18-19)

1/5/22 San Antonio Spurs (L) 97-99 (18-20)

1/6/22 @ New York Knicks (L) 105-108 (18-21)

First, they needed 50 points from Jaylen Brown to barely beat the Magic in overtime. Next, they narrowly lost to the mediocre Spurs. Then they blew a 25-point lead to the Knicks, losing at the buzzer on an RJ Barrett 25-foot bank shot. The goodwill from the Phoenix victory was promptly extinguished.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

ESPN’s Kendrick Perkins said the team was broken, and called for them to break up the roster. Ime Udoka said the team lacked mental toughness, which nobody could disagree with, but people were getting tired of Ime publicly criticizing the team without seeing any improvement. The Celtics had the 22nd ranked offensive rating and were caught in a “blowing 4th quarter leads” time loop.

1/8/22 New York Knicks (W) 99-75 (19-21)

1/10/22 Indiana Pacers (W) 101-98 (20-21)

1/12/22 @ Indiana Pacers (W) 119-100 (21-21)

Alas, they avenged their horrible Knicks loss with a resounding victory two nights later. After beating the Pacers in back-to-back games, Coach Udoka inserted a defensive wrinkle that would alter the course of their season. Indiana usually played with Myles Turner in the corner so Domantas Sabonis had space to operate in the post. With Rob Williams defending Turner, he had free range to contest shots at the rim.

New York Knicks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

At this point, Timelord had played in 33 out of 42 games, averaging 9.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks on 74.9 percent shooting – respectable numbers for a first-year starter. But now tasked with playing 30 minutes a night, he wasn’t displaying the same explosiveness we saw during his first three seasons. Going forward, Williams would always defend the offensive player stationed in the corner, and the Celtics defense – then ranked 8th in the league – would reach historic levels.

The three-game win streak brought them back to .500. Still, nobody was optimistic about this team, even though the Tatum-Brown-Smart-Horford lineup had a +17 net rating and was healthy for 12 games. It would take a few weeks, but nobody would have anticipated that this lineup was about to unleash hell on the rest of the league.

1/14/22 @ Philadelphia 76ers (L) 99-111 (21-22)

1/15/22 Chicago Bulls (W) 114-112 (22-22)

1/17/22 New Orleans Pelicans (W) 104-92 (23-22)

1/19/22 Charlotte Hornets (L) 102-111 (23-23)

1/21/22 Portland Trail Blazers (L) 105-109 (23-24)

When the Celtics didn’t relinquish a fourth quarter lead against the then-surging Bulls, play-by-play announcer Mike Gorman was genuinely shocked they pulled out the victory. A week later, it was same old Celtics, blowing an 11-point fourth quarter lead against the Blazers and not making a field goal in the last seven minutes. The team fell to 23-24, but little did we know, this would be the last time they’d be under .500 all season.

1/23/22 @ Washington Wizards (W) 116-87 (24-24)

1/25/22 Sacramento Kings (W) 128-75 (25-24)

1/28/22 @ Atlanta Hawks (L) 92-108 (25-25)

1/29/22 @ New Orleans Pelicans (W) 107-97 (26-25)

1/31/22 Miami Heat (W) 122-92 (27-25)

At this point, some fans had given up on the Celtics. The team had recently acquired Bol Bol and we were trying to come up with reasons why he might be a future rotation player. The Celtics took care of business against the sputtering Wizards behind 51 points from Tatum, then demolished the Kings two nights later. They lost to the Hawks, but it wasn’t a dispiriting loss. The team played hard, but ran out of gas towards the end and missed some open shots.

Two nights later, they clobbered the Heat. No, Jimmy Butler wasn’t playing, but a 30-point victory against the top seed shouldn’t be taken lightly. Earlier that day, Jaylen Brown made the now famous proclamation, “the energy is about to shift.” Nobody made anything of it at the time, but Horford relayed that point.

2/2/22 Charlotte Hornets (W) 113-107 (28-25)

2/4/22 @ Detroit Pistons (W) 102-93 (29-25)

2/6/22 @ Orlando Magic (W) 116-83 (30-25)

2/8/22 @ Brooklyn Nets (W) 126-91 (31-25)

Don’t look now, but the Celtics just won six straight. Sure, their opponents weren’t great, but over the past month, the team had the 10th best offense (113.5 O-rating) and best defense (100.3 D-rating) by over five points per 100 possessions. During the six-game win streak, Robert Williams averaged three blocks a game and Horford shot 35 percent from three amidst a rough shooting season.

How would Brad Stevens handle his first trade deadline as a GM? Like his first summer, he was active, moving Dennis Schroeder and Enes Freedom for Daniel Theis, then trading Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, their 2022 first rounder, and a 2028 pick swap to the Spurs for Derrick White. Some idiot on this blog called that trade a disaster.

2/11/22 Denver Nuggets (W) 108-102 (32-25)

2/13/22 Atlanta Hawks (W) 105-95 (33-25)

2/15/22 @ Philadelphia 76ers (W) 135-87 (34-25)

2/16/22 Detroit Pistons (L) 111-112 (34-26)

White, in his first possession as a Celtic, found Jaylen for a fast break alley-oop. He scored 15 in his debut and fit seamlessly with the team’s dominant defense. After emasculating the Sixers and extending their win streak to nine, there was real talk about this team potentially winning the East.

Boston Celtics vs Utah Jazz Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

The team was 11-2 since Marcus Smart returned from injury on January 23rd. Ime Udoka did what Brad Stevens could never do: he convinced Smart to limit his contested three-point shots, and he played like the “pure point guard” that Tatum and Brown needed.

Tatum had struggled with his shooting throughout the year, but over these 13 games, he shot 49.8 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from three. On February 18th, he appeared on JJ Reddick’s “Old Man and the Three” podcast. Tatum strayed away from his usual stock answers and gave the most candid interview of his career.

2/24/22 @ Brooklyn Nets (W) 129-106 (35-26)

2/26/22 @ Detroit Pistons (W) 113-104 (36-26)

2/27/22 @ Indiana Pacers (L) 107-128 (36-27)

3/1/22 Atlanta Hawks (W) 107-98 (37-27)

3/3/22 Memphis Grizzlies (W) 120-107 (38-27)

The March 3rd game against Memphis was maybe the most anticipated matchup of the season. At 43-21, the Grizzlies were tied for the second-best record, and without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics won easily behind 37 points from Tatum, 18 points and 12 assists from Smart, and 21 points and 15 rebounds from Horford.

We started seeing more articles like this one from FiveThirtyEight, as the Celtics soon became the darlings of the analytics community. Even the ever-pessimistic Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy was saying, “why not us?”. Boston went 17-3 over the previous 20 games, posting a 102.0 defensive rating and 118.4 offensive rating.

3/6/22 Brooklyn Nets (W) 126-120 (39-27)

3/9/22 @ Charlotte Hornets (W) 115-101 (40-27)

3/11/22 Detroit Pistons (W) 114-103 (41-27)

3/13/22 Dallas Mavericks (L) 92-95 (41-28)

3/16/22 @ Golden State Warriors (W) 110-88 (42-28)

3/18/22 @ Sacramento Kings (W) 126-97 (43-28)

3/20/22 @ Denver Nuggets (W) 124-104 (44-28)

3/21/22 @ Oklahoma City Thunder (W) 132-123 (45-28)

3/23/22 Utah Jazz (W) 125-97 (46-28)

3/27/22 Minnesota Timberwolves (W) 134-112 (47-28)

The Celtics were now mercilessly dominating the league, beating playoff-bound Golden State by 22, Denver by 20, Utah by 28, and Minnesota by 22. Their only loss came during a Sunday afternoon contest against the surging Mavericks, another game where we fell victim to Luka’s late-game heroics.

The Celtics now had the top defensive rating (105.8) and 10th best offensive rating (112.5). In March, Tatum averaged 32.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.9 assists, on 44.7 percent three-point shooting and 53.8 percent overall.

On March 8th, Marcus Smart sent the tweet that launched his successful Defensive Player of the Year campaign. The Celtics were teetering on 20 games over .500 when just a few months ago they couldn’t hold a winning record for more than a week.

3/28/22 @ Toronto Raptors (L) 112-115 (47-29)

3/30/22 Miami Heat (L) 98-106 (47-30)

4/1/22 Indiana Pacers (W) 128-123 (48-30)

4/3/22 Washington Wizards (W) 144-102 (49-30)

4/6/22 @ Chicago Bulls (W) 117-94 (50-30)

4/7/22 @ Milwaukee Bucks (L) 121-127 (50-31)

4/10/22 @ Memphis Grizzlies (W) 139-110 (51-31)

After two euphoric months of basketball, the Celtics finally got hit with some misfortune. During the March 27th game against Minnesota, Robert Williams tore his meniscus, and a March 30th surgery gave him a four-to-six-week timeline to return. We saw a slew of articles like this one proclaiming the Celtics were no longer title contenders.

After Milwaukee followed their April 7th win against the Celtics with an April 8th win against the Pistons, the teams were tied with a 50-31 record with the Bucks holding the tiebreaker. They could have clinched the second seed with an afternoon win against Cleveland on April 10th, but instead, they rested their starters and lost.

If Boston lost to the Grizzlies JV squad that night, they would have fallen to the third seed and avoided Brooklyn in the first round, something the Bucks clearly tried to do. Instead, they played their starters and destroyed the Grizzlies. As we know now, Brooklyn was not a team to be feared, and the one game advantage proved consequential in the second round.

Round 1

4/17/22 Brooklyn Nets (W) 115-114 (1-0)

4/20/22 Brooklyn Nets (W) 114-107 (2-0)

4/23/22 @ Brooklyn Nets (W) 109-103 (3-0)

4/25/22 @ Brooklyn Nets (W) 116-112 (4-0)

Game 1: Tatum buzzer beater. Game 2: 17-point comeback with Kyrie/Durant shooting 1/17 in the second half. Game 3: Robert Williams returns three weeks after surgery and Tatum scores 39. Game 4: the Celtics don’t bother to be gentlemen.

2022 NBA Playoffs - Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Round 2

5/1/22 Milwaukee Bucks (L) 89-101 (0-1)

5/3/22 Milwaukee Bucks (W) 109-86 (1-1)

5/7/22 @ Milwaukee Bucks (L) 101-103 (1-2)

5/9/22 @ Milwaukee Bucks (W) 116-108 (2-2)

5/11/22 Milwaukee Bucks (L) 107-110 (2-3)

5/13/22 @ Milwaukee Bucks (W) 108-95 (3-3)

5/15/22 Milwaukee Bucks (W) 109-81 (4-3)

The teams split a physical first two games, then the Celtics lost a close Game 3 after Jrue Holliday’s last second foul on Marcus Smart was ruled on the floor. Game 4 was the Al Horford Game. The Celtics blew a 14-point Game 5 lead, but Tatum responded in Game 6 by scoring 46 points to Giannis’ 44. Game 7 was The Grant Williams Game, as he went 7/18 from three and the Celtics advanced to their fourth Eastern Conference Finals in six years.

Round 3

5/17/22 @ Miami Heat (L) 107-118 (0-1)

5/19/22 @ Miami Heat (W) 127-102 (1-1)

5/21/22 Miami Heat (L) 103-109 (1-2)

5/23/22 Miami Heat (W) 102-82 (2-2)

5/25/22 @ Miami Heat (W) 93-89 (3-2)

5/27/22 Miami Heat (L) 103-111 (3-3)

5/29/22 @ Miami Heat (W) 100-96 (4-3)

Jimmy Butler scored 41 in Game 1 without Horford or Smart, but Boston responded with an easy Game 2 win. Bam led the Heat with 31 in a Game 3 win, then the Celtics won Game 4 holding Miami’s starters to 18 points. They had another impressive defensive performance holding Miami to 32 percent shooting in Game 5. Game 6 was tied at 99 with two minutes remaining but the Celtics couldn’t close it out. As for Game 7, I’m still traumatized by the last three minutes. I don’t even want to talk about that almost-blown lead and Jimmy’s missed three pointer and will simply opt to enjoy the Celtics making The Finals.

I’ll repeat, THE CELTICS ARE IN THE NBA FINALS!!!!

When CelticsBlog founder, Jeff Clark, was asked before the season for his best case scenario for this Celtics team, he responded with the following:

“The best case is always another championship. To get there a lot of things would have to break right. Jayson Tatum would have to be a top 3 MVP candidate. Jaylen Brown would be the topic of highly sophisticated fan debates contending that “well actually Jaylen is more valuable than Jayson.” Ime Udoka would be in the running for Coach of the Year by convincing the team to play elite defense and move the ball reminiscent of the Spurs “Beautiful Game” years. Veterans would fit in and have perfect health and younger players would step up into roles making winning plays. If all that happens, make room for another banner.”

Well folks, we’re living the best case scenario. Enjoy it.