The Boston Celtics entered the 2022 NBA Finals with zero games
of championship-stage experience on their active roster. Between
Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and
Kevon Looney, the Golden State Warriors had made 123 game
First-year head coach Ime Udoka never appeared in the NBA Finals
as a player, and made it there for 12 games as an assistant coach
with the San Antonio Spurs. Steve Kerr had already spearheaded 21
Finals games and three titles as Golden State's head coach, in
addition to his 27 games as a player.
Boston looked like a deer in the headlights during its three
consecutive losses in part because it had never been here before.
Pushing one of the great dynasties in basketball history to six
games may not have been the desired achievement, but it's still a
notable one. And getting to Game 6 of the NBA Finals after sitting
11th in the East standings as late as January? Count me as somebody
who was a doubter.
More importantly: This playoff run is neon, flashing proof that
this Celtics core, headlined by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, is
capable of winning a championship. All the chatter about their
viability as a duo, Marcus Smart's status as point guard, Udoka's
capability as a coach and so on, is now unequivocally just
Obviously, the franchise shouldn't be satisfied with a loss. Of
course it can tweak the roster and players can improve their
individual skills. But Boston found an identity in the regular
season, tested it against some of the toughest teams in the league
and proved it can propel this team to basketball's ultimate
"Nobody even had us being here, let alone in the playoffs,”
Celtics guard Marcus Smart said postgame following the Finals
defeat. “It definitely is tough. But it’s definitely one of those
things we’ve been through hell to get here, and you take that. You
know what I’m saying? We’ve got to use that.”
Those dejected by the final outcome will point to Tatum's dismal
Game 6 performance, in which he scored 13 points, shot 6-for-18
from the floor and coughed up five turnovers. They'll roll out his
100 total giveaways in these playoffs, the most by any player ever
in a single postseason run. And they'll be right that his handle
and decision-making fell short against one of the league's best
What about his 13 assists (the most ever in a Finals debut)
against two turnovers in Game 1 though? Or his 6.2 assists per game
in the postseason? Tatum had to lead Boston through 24 playoff
games, including two seven-game series, to set that undesirable and
meaningless total turnover record. He became the first Celtic to
crack the All-NBA First Team since Kevin Garnett in 2007-08 and the
second to do it since Larry Bird in 1987-88. There's no more debate
over Tatum's playmaking ability or his star power.
Brown similarly struggled with turnovers in Games 5 and 6,
posting five in each contest with some painful moments late where
he simply lost a handle on the ball. But he also did his best to
carry the scoring load with 34 points in the last defeat. Brown
ended up shooting 51.0% on drives to the basket with an 11.7%
assist rate and 7.8% turnover rate in the Finals — all great
If you're still doubting Brown's ability to improve on the ball,
just read Mark Schindler's
retrospective on the star's polish versus his lone college
season. Which two-man Celtics pairing had the highest plus-minus
per 100 possessions in the regular season? Brown and Tatum, through
all the ups and downs, at plus-14.3. They were also third on the
team (plus-4.3 per 100 possessions) in the postseason. The
discussion over this duo's long-term cohesion is settled by the
numbers and by its achievements this season.
Smart set a career-high in assists per game (5.9) for the third
consecutive season and maintained that rate throughout the
playoffs. In Game 6, while some folks still somehow questioned his
merit as a floor general, Smart dished out 9 assists. He actually
ranked eighth among all potseason players in passes per game, and
while that doesn't shield him or the Celtics from criticism about
their offense, he certainly moves the ball.
I have questions about how the Celtics used Smart in the Finals
— why they didn't post him up more often, and why they kept him off
the ball when Tatum and Brown were struggling (both of them). But
we're well past wondering about Smart's "true point guard" acumen
and using him as the go-to piece in trade machines. Smart is a
keeper because he's a core part of
Boston's offense, nevermind also being the first
guard in over 25 years to win Defensive Player of the Year.
Then, we get to some pivotal contributions from other players
that underscore Brad Stevens' slam dunk of a first year as
president of basketball operations. Al Horford obviously
headlines the success. I thought he was no longer a starter at the
beginning of the season; instead, the longtime, familiar veteran
was everything Boston needed in a low-usage big and so much more,
and he battled in all 24 playoff games at 36 years old.
Robert Williams III had the healthiest regular season of his
career and reinforced his status as one of the most fearsome
shot-blockers in basketball. He was visibly struggling with
mobility in the Finals, but fighting valiantly, considering he
played the series on an injured, swollen knee. Grant Williams
didn't impact the Finals in the same way as his regular season, but
he was instrumental in series wins over the Brooklyn Nets and
Milwaukee Bucks. Derrick White fit right in as a defensive
cornerstone who gave Stephen Curry — one of the sport's
transcendent offensive weapons — all he could on screens and on the
Udoka certainly won't, but he should gloat about this defense.
In one year at the helm, he overhauled Boston's entire scheme, made
mid-season adjustments, took on new players and molded a unit that
ranked first in regular-season Defensive Rating (106.9) and second
in the playoffs (107.6). It frequently kept Boston in games and
series as the offensive output waxed and waned.
Now, Udoka and Stevens have a full offseason to further their
vision after proving it will work in their first year together.
They don't have many available pathways to move, though.
The Celtics only have the No. 53 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft and
the taxpayer mid-level exception to sign players outright. They do,
however, have several trade exceptions, headlined by a $17.1
million TPE from dealing Evan Fournier.
The entire main rotation is under contract for next season
(Horford's deal is non-guaranteed, but there are already
indications Boston will guarantee
it). Nik Stauskas and Malik Fitts have non-guaranteed
contracts. Matt Ryan and Brodric Thomas are restricted free agents,
and Boston holds team options on Juwan Morgan and Sam Hauser. They
might all be on the outs this summer.
Stevens has room to merely fine-tune the roster ahead of the
2022-23 season. Fortunately, that's all he needs to do.
For several years, Boston wondered if the Celtics would be able
to break down the door of the NBA Finals after falling in the
conference finals three times in five years. This core proved it
can reach the pinnacle without any requisite experience.
So yes, a loss in the Finals always stings. But the way the
Celtics arrived there, and even the way they lost, should provide
their fan base with hope.