Have the Boston Celtics really accomplished anything yet?
It’s far too early to be booking the Duck Boats given that the Celtics are merely two wins into a playoff stretch where they hope to earn 16 of them. But based on their entire second-half turnaround, which has carried into the postseason with the excitement of their two playoff games, the Celtics continue to be well-deserving of praise.
It starts at the top with president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, to first-year head coach Ime Udoka while trickling down to the stars like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and so on and so on.
… But perhaps it’s time to give former Celtics executive Danny Ainge his flowers, too?
Ainge was among the many looking great Wednesday night when two of his first-round picks had pivotal performances during a crucial Game 2 against the Brooklyn Nets. And no, we’re not talking about Tatum or Brown. While those two certainly highlight Ainge’s greatest hits, it was a pair of unexpected contributors — two selections for whom Ainge caught flack before leaving Boston this past offseason — who helped Boston claim a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-seven. Both have played a part in the second-half turnaround, too.
Grant Williams, Ainge’s No. 22 pick in 2019, and Payton Pritchard, Ainge’s No. 26 pick in 2020, each put together a signature performance. Williams, as acknowledged by Brown, was the biggest reason the Celtics were able to stay afloat in the first half rather than trailing by 20-plus points at the intermission.
“First half, the story was Grant,” Brown said, referencing Williams’ trio of 3-pointers before the break to go along with a first quarter-ending block. Williams chipped in 17 points off the bench as he was perfect 6-for-6 from the field (3-for-3 from long range) with six tough rebounds and two blocks.
Prichard then played some of his best basketball in a Celtics uniform during the fourth quarter, taking crunch-time minutes away from Smart and Derrick White in the process. Pritchard hit a pair of pull-up jumpers, the second of which gave Boston its first lead of the game, while complementing his outing with another stingy defensive effort. His shot-making ability gave the Nets another aspect to defend, thus opening up other things for the Celtics. He scored eight of his 10 points in the fourth quarter while recording a team-best plus-15 rating.
“That was amazing,” Brown said of Pritchard after the win. “It just goes to show his confidence in himself. It just goes to show his poise, his readiness, and we’re going to need that going forward.”
Now, in circling back to Ainge, rehashing his draft history over two decades is a story for another day. This isn’t to say he didn’t miss on James Young in 2014, R.J. Hunter in 2015 or even Guerschon Yabusele the season after that. But it’s certainly fair to view this second-half turnaround and short playoff stretch as a way of saving face after his departure. After all, Ainge is responsible for hitting on Boston’s core of Robert Williams, Tatum, Brown and Smart as they enter the prime of their careers. Three of those were lottery picks, but those don’t always pan out. I mean, Nets guard Ben Simmons went two picks before Brown and Markelle Fultz went two before Tatum.
So, again, there remains a long way to go for the Celtics in their first-round series let alone a pursuit of the organization’s 18th banner. But the wholesale changes led by Stevens and Udoka have helped the Celtics become exactly what Ainge and Stevens were hoping for.