There were a number of reasons for the Celtics’ turnaround this season, and by now you’ve heard all of them. Well, most of them anyway.
Marcus Smart spoke of another factor as the new and dramatically improved Shamrocks prepared to host Game 3 of the NBA Freakin’ Finals — a destination that seemed unthinkable when his team was snorkeling below .500 in January.
The other changes unfolded sporadically.
There was the improved health after the turn of the calendar year.
There was new coach Ime Udoka finding his sea legs and, when needed, his inner Popovich.
There was Al Horford and Robert Williams realizing how they could get more from each other.
There were the Jayson Tatum/Jaylen Brown discussions on the road on the need to, as they put it, find ways to be better together.
“The grass ain’t always greener,” Tatum said while the Celtics were struggling and at times playing more like individual contractors than the cohesive collection they would become.
Then there was that January 6 loss in New York when the Celts embarrassingly squandered a 25-point lead and completed the trip to defeat on an RJ Barrett 3-pointer that, as if to twist the knife, banked in off the Madison Square Garden glass.
Udoka was pointed in his post-game remarks.
“It wasn’t about the last play again. It was everything leading up to it,” he said. “We need some leadership.”
Celtics Bottomed Out
First, the Celtics needed to improve on the 18-21 record they took home from Manhattan.
Slowly things started getting better. Acquiring Derrick White and inserting him into the rotation in place of the uneven performances of the deadline departed Dennis Schroder helped things along, as did the playing time created for energizer Payton Pritchard by the sum of Brad Stevens’ trades.
But when things were threatening to splinter in the face of iso ball and a failure to live up to their defensive potential — a matter of hustle and trust — the Celtics got to stare into the darkness and unknown of what may lie ahead for them. They were 36-36 in 2020-21 and less than even that after New York. There were dire remedies being discussed on radio and TV, while opposing teams began circling the C’s to see if talent could be pried from the underachievement.
In the midst of it all, it seemed as if the Celtics had to get to a low point to fully grasp the need to pull together.
“No, we didn’t have to get there, but it definitely got there,” Smart told Heavy.com. “And it definitely, you know, kind of jump-started things for us by getting there.
“We definitely made it hard on ourselves. But, you know, we always hear the saying: if you want something great, it’s never gonna be easy to achieve it. So, you know, we take that full head-on as a team, we accept it and we ride with it.”
Marcus Smart: ‘Really Look Yourself in the Mirror’
Smart had notably made statements early in the season on how the Celts had to be more willing to move the ball — a point, by the way, that Udoka is still hammering home regularly. Smart’s choice of words may not have been what he wished, calling out teammates and not including himself, as he later said he meant. But the discussions that followed were therapeutic, even if the Celtics weren’t entirely through finding out how difficult things could get.
Eventually it was if they walked to the edge of a cliff, looked down and said, nah, we don’t want to go there.
“Yeah, I mean, nobody ever wants to start off the season the way we did. But it happens,” said Smart. “It’s part of it. And it’s not about that. It’s a long season, and we had enough time to fix it.
“But you have to, you know, really look yourself in the mirror and understand what you need to fix.”
When it was suggested the Celtics were, in a sense, scared straight by their troubles, Smart tilted his head and said, “It be like that sometimes.”
And sometimes you steer out of the skid and drive all the way to 1-1 against the vaunted Golden State Warriors in the last series on the NBA schedule.