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How Celtics found way to reverse disappointing start to season

Boston used its star duo and a focus on defense to turn around a 17-19 start and climb back into the playoff picture.

The Celtics have figured out a recipe for success under new coach Ime Udoka (right).

They didn’t travel in a straight line to get here, but they finally arrived and that’s what’s important, right?

Yes, absolutely. After a few soul-searching months and coping with hazards along the way, the Boston Celtics are where you thought they’d be: in the thick of the mix and serving notice in the Eastern Conference.

It was a struggle initially, and the only noise the Celtics generated then was about swingmen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and whether it was time for a separation. But now those two are tag-teaming in harmony almost on a nightly basis. The Celtics are using that, along with the league’s best defense since the start of December, to take the express elevator up the East standings.

Of course, all this does is also raise some skepticism about their authenticity and ability to be taken seriously as a team that can forge a deep playoff run. While that’s an issue for another day, it’s fair to salute the Celtics for refusing to crumble and for how they discovered a way to reverse their once-troubled season.

Ime Udoka, the first-year coach, says the Celtics are “a mentally focused group” with a singular purpose — to re-establish themselves in the NBA’s high pecking order. For much of the season, the Celtics developed whiplash as they saw other contenders (like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat) and even some upstarts (such as the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors) breeze past them. It was a humbling experience for a club that staggered along and was 17-19 as the calendar flipped to 2022.

The team has always responded well to being challenged. Even the games we were losing early on, I was always optimistic because the team never stopped fighting, never stopped playing the right way.”

— Celtics coach Ime Udoka

The Celtics went 9-2 in February and are both above the Play-In Tournament cutoff line and within reasonable range of moving into the top four in the East (which would give them home-court advantage at least through the first round).

This of course is a night-and-day switch from where they once were during the holidays. Was it too much sudden change at the top that caused the poor start? Udoka, a long-time assistant who served under San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (among others), was learning on the fly and his seat got hot in a hurry. Brad Stevens moved from coaching to the front office where he, too, was a neophyte. Both men started their jobs by juggling a potential disaster, given the club’s surprisingly sub-par start and the predictable amount of outside noise that followed.

Udoka and Stevens stayed cool and didn’t panic, though, and that’s one reason why the Celtics’ situation stabilized.

“We took our lumps early, especially with finishing games,” Udoka said. “But the team has always responded well to being challenged. Even the games we were losing early on, I was always optimistic because the team never stopped fighting, never stopped playing the right way. We got better at finishing games and obviously, winning breeds confidence. We’re jelling together now and we know the group we have going forward.”

Relive some of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown's best plays this season.

There was much buzz about Tatum and Brown and whether those stars, both with similar sizes and playing styles, were too ball-dominant — teammate Marcus Smart raised that issue publicly — and needed to be split. Stevens ignored the temptation at the trade deadline, and he’s being rewarded for that. Brown and Tatum do have decent chemistry and both seem to like and respect each other and manage to make it work.

Tatum, in particular, has finally shaken free of the severe performance swings he had earlier in the season. In the 2021 portion of this season, he had 10 games of 35 or more points … but also seven games of less than 20 points. He’s averaging 25.7 points per game this season and while he’s shooting a career-worst on 3-pointers (32.9%), he ranks eighth in the NBA in clutch scoring.

Brown dealt with injury issues until mid-December, but since returning to the lineup on Dec. 13, he’s averaging 24.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg and 3.8 apg — all at or better than his season averages (23.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.3 apg).

But the real reason for the turnaround is defense. Since Jan. 1, Boston leads the NBA in defensive rating (102.3), allows the fewest points in the paint (40.7) and is second in blocks per game (6.6) and third in opponent fast-break points allowed (10.2). Suddenly, the Celtics, who lack a third scorer and had become too dependent on Tatum and Brown for offense, don’t need to ring up 100 points to win every night.

“We know we can lock in and buckle down defensively when we need to,” Udoka said. “When our shots are not falling, we can grind it out.”

Collectively, the Celtics have taken their cue from Smart, their best defender of the last few seasons, and developed a dogged approach to shutting down the other team. Veteran center Al Horford calls the mindset “contagious” and this is something Udoka has stressed. It’s a mentality that will aid the Celtics when the playoffs arrive because that is when defense usually reigns supreme.

Check out some of the Celtics' top defensive plays from the 2021-22 season.

Boston has also had the league’s best point differential since Jan. 1, with defense being the main reason for that.

“And as the offense has picked up, you’re seeing the separation in the point margin,” Udoka said.

Boston has also received promising results from center Robert Williams. The Celtics extended his contract despite mild results from Williams after his first few years. It turned out to be a solid decision. Williams is beginning to feel his way around the floor and learn how to play to his strengths, and he’s averaging career highs in the major statistical categories (10.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 2.2 bpg) while also executing the pick-and-roll.

His namesake, reserve forward Grant Williams, has delivered deep shooting lately. So, too, has backup point guard Payton Prichard, who feels more confident when given the ball and charged with making decisions and doing the playmaking, relieving Smart, Brown and Tatum of that role on occasion.

“I really feel good about finding a role where I’m helping this team win,” Pritchard said. “It has been a frustrating season at times, but things are going well now.”

The Celtics are also high on swingman Derrick White, whom they acquired from the Spurs at the trade deadline. White had a breakout performance for San Antonio in the 2018-19 playoffs … and then became part of a positional log-jam there.

White moves well and has proven to be highly adaptable so far in his new surroundings. His shooting hasn’t caught up with his enthusiasm yet but the Celtics are patient, and besides, there’s no immediate pressure on White to carry heavy minutes.

Robert Williams III delivered a triple-double in a New Year's Eve win vs. Phoenix.

As solid as their recent results have been, the Celtics are staring at more prosperity, given the upcoming schedule. Four of their next six games are at home before making a final Western swing.

They’ll need to keep from occasionally playing down to the level of competition; aside from the loss to the Pistons, the Celtics are coming off a stinker in Indiana where they allowed the struggling Pacers to score 128 points, the most since 137 in a December loss to Utah.

The better-late-than-never emergence of the Celtics only elevated the depth of strength in the East. Suddenly, this conference seems up for grabs, with roughly a half-dozen teams making a case for themselves as worthy of at least reaching the conference finals if the breaks go their way.

“I understood the big picture, that we could get to where we are; it was just going to take some time,” Udoka said. “They’ve all been receptive to coaching and criticism and challenging them, so I love the group for that.”

All the Celtics wanted to do is join the select and elite company in the East. They’re now trending in that direction.

“We definitely lost some games we felt like we shouldn’t have lost early in the season,” Brown said. “Now we get the chance to play some of these teams again and we’re looking to pull out some wins. We’ve been finding ways to win — defensively, timely baskets and we’ve been sealing out games.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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