Unpacking Five Key Reasons Behind Celtics’ Remarkable Turnaround

Boston's stretch has included 27 wins in its last 34 games


Mar 22, 2022

It wasn’t that long ago when Celtics guard Marcus Smart was calling out Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for not passing the ball.

It wasn’t that long ago Boston was blowing what felt like insurmountable leads to inferior opponents like the woeful New York Knicks.

It wasn’t that long ago many were questioning whether Tatum and Brown, the organization’s two up-and-coming stars, could play together in the long term.

The surging Celtics, now considered to be the hottest team in the league, have put each of those storylines on ice. Boston, dating back to Jan. 8, has won 27 of its 34 games with nine wins in its last 10 contests. The Green have vaulted up the Eastern Conference standings and now sit in a three-way tie for second and just 2.5 games back of the No. 1 overall seed.

The factors behind Boston’s turnaround — which now can be viewed as flat-out remarkable — are extensive.

Stars playing like stars
As many expected (and hoped), the emergence of Tatum and Brown has elevated the Celtics to the next level. Tatum, who has been named Eastern Conference Player of the Week twice in March, is worthy of All-NBA consideration and deserving of NBA MVP votes. His offensive prowess has been on another level, depicted as he now leads the league in points scored after surpassing Chicago Bulls’ DeMar DeRozan. But Tatum’s playmaking, his ability to consistently make the right play with the basketball in his hands, has not only got teammates involved but unlocked the entire offense. Boston’s assist numbers are ticking up, and while that’s not exclusively a product of Tatum, the star’s willingness to get open looks for teammates has played a key role. Brown, not to be outdone, has been largely impactful while becoming the Robin to Tatum’s Batman (sorry Grant Williams). Brown and Tatum have scored 30 points each in six games this season, including twice on the C’s recent four-game road trip.

Defense, defense, defense
Ime Udoka’s defense-first mindset has been the single-biggest difference from last year. The Celtics became the league’s best defensive team in terms of defensive rating March 6 and continue to maintain that status. Boston is fully bought in on that side of the floor — Tatum certainly is — with the cohesive play of Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Al Horford and Robert Williams leading the charge. Perhaps the best indication of Boston’s ability to both attack and limit opponents on that end is that it held Denver Nuggets’ NBA MVP candidate Nikola Jokic to 23 points on 23 shots two games prior.

It’s allowed the Celtics to become the team with the best overall net rating in the last 15 games, as shared by NBA analyst Kirk Goldsberry. Boston also owns a league-best net rating since Jan. 7 and the third best net rating on the season.

Unselfish offense
The scoring contributions of Tatum and Brown have went a long way, but the playmaking ability by Smart, who’s excelled as the team’s starting point guard of late, and willingness to space the floor and keep the ball moving by Boston’s bigs (Horford, Williams) is deserving of recognition. The offensive numbers are up across the board with more fast break points, indicating how Boston is turning defense into offense, with more points in the paint. Additionally, Boston’s assist percentages have jumped 5.3% comparing its first 39 games to the last 33, as pointed out by NBC Sports Boston’s Chris Forsberg, and the offense ranks fifth in the NBA since Jan. 7 while posting 116.4 points per 100 possessions. Udoka continues to acknowledge how the ball is not sticking, and it’s led to many open looks for role players.

Road warriors
Dating back to that indicated stretch starting Jan. 8, the Celtics are 14-3 on the road including wins in each of their past five games away from TD Garden. Udoka credited it to Boston’s desire to compete hard on the road and in tough environments, but also indicated how the group’s ability to lockdown offenses has played a critical role. Simply put, Boston’s defense had traveled.

Impactful trade deadline
There’s no debating that Boston now is a better team after the NBA trade deadline thanks to first-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens. The Celtics are a better team with Payton Pritchard and White seeing minutes that previously belonged to Dennis Schroder. And Daniel Theis, who was the player that returned to Boston in the Schroder deal, also has aided Udoka with a strong eight- or nine-man rotation. Boston is 14-3 since the Feb. 10 deadline.

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images
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