After the Celtics defeated the Heat in a seven-game slugfest, WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche Asked Boston Coach Ime Udoka if only he had a message for all the Celtics fans celebrating their team’s victory. Udoka responded, “We don’t celebrate Eastern Conference championships in this organization. We do not hang these banners. We are here for more and better.”
Udoka and the Celtics know the bar is always set high in Boston. They did not win the franchise’s 18th championship, which would have put them ahead of the rival Lakers. If you judge them solely by these criteria, they have failed.
But the Celtics’ path to the NBA Finals shouldn’t be overlooked.
They were under .500 almost 50 games in 2021-22 season before they erupted into an incredible breakthrough, winning 28 of their last 35 games. Boston advanced to the NBA playoffs best defense in the league, one that could choke opponents with size and speed in any position. Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jason Tatum, Al Horford and Robert Williams formed a dominant starting five.
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Tatum was selected to the NBA First Team for the first time in his career. After Tatum and Brown faced questions about whether they could work together as a dynamic duo, they silenced critics. Smart became the first quarterback since Gary Payton to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
In the postseason, the Celtics eliminated all-star teams in every round. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were all sent home. They were then only two games away from defeating the Warriors, which included the title trio of Stephen Curry, Clay Thompson and Draymond Green.
The real failure is not to fall to one of the great dynasties in the history of the NBA. No, he falls down and doesn’t get up.
Williams (24), Tatum (24), Brown (25) and Smart (28) have their best years ahead of them. Grant Williams (23), Payton Pritchard (24) and Derrick White (27) should also continue to improve. Udoka is just getting started. The pieces are all sitting right there.
But having the pieces is not the same as putting the puzzle together.
We saw the Thunder make it to the 2012 NBA Finals with Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka in their 20s. They never returned.
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The Magic made it to the 1995 NBA Finals thanks to the brilliant performance of a pair of young men named Penny Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal. This dynamic duo broke up before they could return.
There will be many rivals in Boston’s path next season. The Bucks, Heat, Nets, and Sixers are all set to win. Even if the Celtics can make it through the Eastern Conference bracket again, the Warriors or a new opponent will be waiting for them.
The Celtics are not interested in winning the Eastern Conference championships. Tatum doesn’t have to settle for the Eastern Conference Finals MVP trophy. No one in Boston will accept anything less than banner #18.
Will this NBA Finals loss fuel the Celtics in their pursuit of “big and better things” in the future? Or will they look back on the 2022 NBA Finals as the streak they missed out on?