On the evening of January 6th on a cold winter night in New York, everything turned for the 2022 Boston Celtics. The Celtics were leading the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden by 24 points in the second quarter, and Jayson Tatum was on his way to a 36 point game. Given those stats, a distant observer who wasn’t watching would rightly assume that an automatic victory was to follow. Except sometimes even common sense doesn’t make sense. Slowly but surely the Knicks picked away at the large deficit, only to find the contest knotted at 105 with 5 seconds left on the clock. New York had the ball, with a chance to complete a miraculous comeback. As the game clock hit .09 seconds, Knicks forward R.J. Barrett hit a fadeaway 3-pointer over Tatum that banked off the backboard and fell in at the buzzer, breaking the hearts of Celtic Nation. This was lowest low of the season, and the moment everything changed for the Boston Celtics.
The next morning Tatum and the rest of the team woke up back in Boston trying to recover from that ugly heartbreak, staring at an 18-21 record, with the hopes of a successful season quickly fading. While many fans viewed that loss as the final nail in the coffin, Tatum felt otherwise. He later went on to claim that that night, that moment, was when the season turned around. “The toughest moment for me was blowing that 24-point lead against New York and R.J. Barrett hit the game-winning shot over me,” Tatum said. “That was the lowest moment for me. I think shortly after that things started to turn around.” Shortly thereafter the team’s second best player, Jaylen Brown, went on to tweet “The energy is about to shift,” which later became the team’s motto- so much in fact that t-shirts and towels were printed with the phrase.
Something clicked that night for Boston’s two stars, something that may never specifically be pinpointed. Perhaps it was all the losing, or the way in which they were losing that made them angry. Maybe it was all the doubters, of which there were many, who were saying “Tatum and Brown can’t’ play together, it’s time to break them up”. Or possibly there was a closed door moment, when Brown went to Tatum and said, “This is your team now Jayson. You’re Batman, but I’m gonna be your Robin”. It was undeniably one of those three, or perhaps even a combination. Regardless, a team that was below .500 in early January then went on an unprecedented 34-10 run down the stretch, becoming a completely unrecognizable group from the one that began the season. Instead of teams looking forward to playing them, teams now looked at them with fear. They played relentless defense, shared the basketball, got contributions up and down the roster, and the head coach had found his voice in the locker room. They went on to finish the season with a 51-31 record and the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. No one was doubting them anymore.
Fast forward to present day: June 1, 2022. After sweeping the preseason favorite Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, Boston went on to beat the defending Champion Milwaukee Bucks in a hard fought 7 game series. Most recently, they took the top seeded Miami Heat to 7 games, only to finish them off in dramatic fashion. There simply was not a tougher road in which to take. Preseason favorites. Check. Defending Champs. Check. No. 1 seed. Check. Up next? A date with the Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
For a team at the beginning of the year that looked headed for another date with the ping pong balls in the NBA Draft lottery, their remarkable turnaround was unprecedented. No one saw this coming. If you had told me you saw this in your crystal ball in December, I would have called you a liar. They went from a team that played selfish, careless, and at times seemingly disinterested in basketball, to a juggernaut that was quickly becoming legit championship contenders. They cared about each other, listened to their coach, played team basketball, and no longer concerned themselves with individual stats, instead concentrating on winning. Of course there have been bumps in the road along the way. Particularly in these first three rounds of the playoffs. The players self-admittedly know how hard their journey has been. They choose the difficult path to the Finals, and to their credit, they have backed down from no one. Guard Derrick White said after the team’s latest playoff loss, “If it were easy, it wouldn’t be us”. But some of the anguish and anxiety they bring on themselves.
In the second round, Boston was down 3-2 with a Game 6 in Milwaukee, with elimination staring them in the face. Tatum had the game of his life, scoring 46 points and propelling the team to a blowout Game 7 win at home and a date in the Eastern Conference Finals. Up 3-2 with a close out Game 6 at home, the Celtics failed to show up, allowing Jimmy Butler and the Heat to force a Game 7 in Miami. In Game 7, the Celtics were up 13 with just over 3 minutes remaining, only to blow that lead and give Butler a wide open 3 point shot with 17 seconds left that most likely would have won the game for the Heat. It is truly remarkable how difficult the team makes life for not only themselves, but for the stressed out fans that support them. That said. Somehow. Some way. They find a way. But standing in their way, is perhaps their toughest test to date: the Warriors. They have been there. They have done that. In fact, they have been in the NBA Finals an incredible 6 of the past 8 seasons, winning 3 titles during that span. Many consider them a dynasty. They are talented. They are deep. They are experienced. They are the favorites.
But if we’ve learned anything about this 2022 Boston Celtics team, it’s that we know nothing about what’s to come in the next two weeks. What we do know, is that they will continue to stress us out and make things difficult. But they will also entertain us and unquestionably make us proud.
“They stink. They can’t play together. The coach doesn’t know what he’s doing. The season’s over,” that’s what many Celtic Nation were saying after that cold night in January. But they believed in themselves when nearly no one else did. In the 75 years of NBA existence, this year’s Celtics completed the greatest in-season turn around in NBA history. That remarkable feat stands on its own, but for the first time since a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Lakers in 2010, the Boston Celtics are back in the NBA Finals. Four games from completing perhaps the most unexpected and remarkable season in the history of this storied franchise. And no one saw it coming. Maybe not even them.