BOSTON (AP) The Celtics made it to the NBA Finals no one expected, going from a team that had three games under .500 under a new head coach in early January to two wins to win the franchise’s 18th championship.
After those hopes are dashed in a haze of three straight losses to the champion Golden State Warriors, the young Boston core vows to use that pain as motivation in the offseason. Although they didn’t win, the Celtics established themselves as one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
“The most important message was to learn from this, grow from this, use this experience and see that there is another level to go to,” coach Ime Udoka said after Thursday night’s loss. “Just don’t come back the same as the players, the coaching staff. May it keep you going through the off-season and next year.”
When Udoka took over from Brad Stevens last offseason, the Celtics were a team in transition.
Stevens seemed to have pushed the Celtics to their limits in eight seasons on the bench. He took Boston to three conference finals but was unable to help its young core, led by up-and-coming All-Stars Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown, overcome the odds.
Udok, who did just that in the first year. He challenged the team and drew on the experience of veterans like Marcus Smart and Al Horford to gradually build a culture based on defense and selfless offense.
It paid off in the second half of the season when the Celtics turned an 18-23 record into a 51-31 record at the end of the season, good enough to claim the East’s second seed. After crushing Brooklyn followed by seven straight wins over defending champion Milwaukee and top seed Miami, Boston seemed unstoppable.
The Celtics took a quick 2-1 lead in the Finals over Golden State, but were ultimately unable to escape their penchant for self-made mistakes against the Warriors.
The Celtics were 1-7 in the playoffs with 16 or more losses. They hit the figure in three of their four final losses.
Tatum has been extremely inconsistent, averaging 22 points but only scoring 44 of 120 (37%) from the field. He was 5 of 13 from the 12-point field in the decisive Game 6 in Boston.
Even worse, Tatum became the first player in NBA history to have 100 turnovers in a single postseason.
Bitterly, he said he was learning the lessons he had learned.
“It’s hard. It’s hard to get to this point,” Tatum said. “It’s even harder to get over that hump and beat it. It’s been a long journey, a long process. Here’s what I’ve learned from it: it’s hard. You have to climb a new level to do what we want.”
The good news for Boston is that their coach has experienced both extremes of the final. He was Gregg Popovich’s first-year assistant when San Antonio lost to Miami in the Finals in 2013, and there the following year when the Spurs beat the Heat to clinch the title.
“We have improved in many areas, but have not reached our ultimate goal,” Udoka said. “Some of the guys did not perform well. This will motivate the guys throughout the season. The message that everyone comes back is better. Let’s not be satisfied. It is not certain that you will be here.
Tatum occasionally grimaced and clutched his right shoulder throughout the final due to an injury he suffered in the conference final against Miami.
He survived the pain in the final but also insisted that it didn’t affect his performance.
So far, he has no plans for surgery.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD?
One of the biggest questions this summer will be what Stevens, who is completing his first year as president of basketball operations, plans to do as a point guard.
The trade of Kemba Walker last offseason and the sacking of Dennis Schroeder this season placed the blame on Smart. At times he excelled, but his defense-oriented mindset hurt the team, which at times required a real floor general to open the hall for gunslingers from Boston.
Replacing him would not be easy, as he is also the emotional leader of Boston.
Smart, who has a contract until the 2025/26 season, is only focused on helping the team that drafted him in 2014 improve.
“We were young. … What we went through to get here showed us what the future holds for us,” he said. “I think that’s why we are confident in the future. We all know what the goal is in the future “.