Celtics Grab 50th Win in Stampeding of the Bulls

In late January, a 50-win season appeared to be out of the question for the Boston Celtics. With just 23 victories in their first 47 games, some pundits didn’t even think they’d be able to turn their season around in time to make a postseason appearance.

Yet on Wednesday night, with three regular-season games to spare, Boston hit the half-century mark in a 117-94 win in Chicago. The victory gave them sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference, while also allowing them to clinch home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs.

Over the past two and a half months, the Celtics have gone from an 11th-place, sub-.500 squad to the hottest team in the NBA. They have won 27 of their last 33 games since Jan. 21, rising from one game below .500 to 20 games above .500 during that span.

If Ime Udoka had been told at the beginning of the season that he’d win 50-plus games in his first year as Celtics head coach, he wouldn’t have been surprised. But he never could have imagined reaching 50 in the roller-coaster manner that they did.

“When you take it in that context of how poorly we started or the games we gave away early, it means something,” Udoka said after the game. “When I signed on here, it was pretty much a given we were going to win 50 games. That was the expectation. As far as that, not surprised but because of the way we started going on the run we had in the second half or so, it's a good thing to get back to where we expected to be.”

Udoka became the fifth Celtics head coach to win 50-plus games in his first season at the helm, joining Bill Russell, Bill Fitch, K.C. Jones, and Chris Ford. Only three of those five – Russell, Ford, and now Udoka – accomplished the feat as a rookie head coach.

However, none of their paths to 50 were carved out quite like Udoka’s. He and his staff had to turn a struggling team around mid-season, which was an arduous task that they made look easy.

“I think it’s a pretty simple formula we talk about,” Udoka said of how the team has locked in during the second half of the season. “Play defense at an elite level, share the ball, be unselfish on offense and the results are kind of there. We’ve seen the formula that’s produced winning, whereas early in the season we would do something well and then take a step back the next game. It’s been consistent as far as that. Try to keep it simple as far as the message and repeat that every night.”

Early in the season, the Celtics also coughed up many large leads, such as the 19-point advantage that they saw disappear on Nov. 1 against the Bulls in a 128-114 loss at TD Garden.

“That game is going to stick with us forever because it’s something that kind of fueled and started the talks and trying to get back on track,” Marcus Smart recalled of the loss, which marked the first 0-3 start at home in franchise history. “We lost that game and everybody counted us out.”

Everybody except for themselves.

Now, the Celtics are holding onto large leads, as they did Wednesday night in a wire-to-wire win against the same Bulls team that had embarrassed them on their home court five months prior.

“We are defending at a high level and kind of get stops on command when we need to,” Udoka said. “Offense has improved to get better overall looks, continuity, and unselfishness, and in that area, a lot of times early in the season when we were losing those leads it was because of droughts offensively and now it’s obviously much better.”

Boston’s offensive and defensive improvements have led to an improbable turnaround, resulting in the first 50-win campaign for its rookie head coach and also marking an NBA-record 34th time that the franchise has reached the half-century mark in the regular season.

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