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How The Celtics Turned Things Around

Not all that long ago, it seemed inconceivable that the Boston Celtics would be representing the Eastern Conference in the 2022 NBA Finals. The road leading them here was tumultuous, to say the least. It involved (multiple) disputes between star players, incessant calls to break up the central Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown duo and questions both from and about new head coach Ime Udoka, whose system posed a struggle for the Celtics early in the season.

As late as mid-January, the Celtics languished in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, sitting behind teams like the Washington Wizards and New York Knicks and outside of play-in territory. They were still below .500 on Jan. 22 — 47 games into their season. According to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based prediction model, Boston’s odds to make the playoffs dropped to just 61.4 percent following a dispiriting home loss to the Damian Lillard-less Portland Trail Blazers the night before, while its odds to win the title dipped to 3 percent.

But the Celtics’ shift in defensive strategies initiated a week earlier eventually led to the discovery of an identity that would send Boston vaulting up the standings. Less than three weeks after falling below .500 for the last time, Boston had nearly sextupled its title odds after winning eight of nine games and then acquiring Derrick White from the San Antonio Spurs at the trade deadline. Five days after that (Feb. 16), according to the model, the Celtics became title favorites ­— a position they have held for 92 of 106 days since.

After closing out the regular season on a 28-7 finishing kick, the Celtics defeated, in succession, the preseason title favorite Brooklyn Nets, the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks1 and the No. 1-seed Miami Heat on their way through the Eastern Conference side of the playoff bracket. It’s as remarkable an in-season turnaround as we’ve seen in quite some time.

In fact, only 37 of the 92 teams to make the NBA Finals since the ABA-NBA merger prior to the 1976-77 season have fallen below .500 at any point during that season, let alone as late in the year as these Celtics did. Thirteen of those 37 teams’ only stint below .500 was beginning the season 0-1. Only 10 of 92 eventual Finals participants were below .500 more than 10 games into the year; just four had a losing record after at least 20 games; and before the Celtics, the only Finals team that was below .500 more than halfway through that season was the 1980-81 Houston Rockets, who ended the regular season with a 40-42 record before making a miraculous run through the Western Conference.

Teams that struggle to start the season rarely make the Finals

Teams to reach the NBA Finals since 1976-77 that were below .500 through at least 10 games, by number of games into the season that they were still below .500

Season Team Start Games In Finish Finals W/L
1980-81 Rockets 40-42 82 0-0 L
2021-22 Celtics 23-24 47 28-7 ?
2014-15 Cavaliers 19-20 39 34-9 L
1977-78 Sonics 19-20 39 28-15 L
2004-05 Pistons 7-8 15 47-20 L
1998-99 Spurs 7-8 15 30-5 W
2017-18 Cavaliers 6-7 13 44-25 L
1997-98 Jazz 5-6 11 57-14 L
1990-91 Bulls 5-6 11 56-15 W
1977-78 Bullets 5-6 11 39-32 W

Sources: ESPN, Basketball-Reference.com

Boston’s propensity for turnarounds did not end with the regular season. The Celtics already have four double-digit comebacks during these playoffs, more than all but eight teams since the 1996-97 campaign (which is as far back as play-by-play data goes), according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. The Celtics have also responded to each of their six playoff losses so far with a victory, joining only the 2008-09 Lakers as teams to lose at least that many games on their way to the Finals but never lose two in a row. Boston’s victories following a playoff loss have also been extremely decisive, with an average margin of victory of 15.5 points per game. Only three post-merger teams with at least five pre-Finals losses rebounded in stronger fashion.

Boston bounced back after every playoff loss

Among NBA Finals teams since 1976-77 with at least five playoff losses before the Finals, the teams with the largest margin of victory in games following a loss

Year Team Playoff losses Margin of victory
in next game
2018 Golden State Warriors 5 20.0
2013 Miami Heat 7 18.1
2009 Los Angeles Lakers 7 15.6
2022 Boston Celtics 6 15.5

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

Now, the Celtics are four wins away from hanging banner No. 18. Of course, it will likely not come easily. Nothing for these Celtics has, including their victories in the past two rounds. Boston is just the sixth team since the merger to need seven games to advance out of both the second round and the conference finals, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Just one of the previous five teams (the 1988 Lakers) ended up winning the title that season.

Standing in Boston’s way is a Golden State Warriors team that is unlike any it has faced during this postseason thus far. The Warriors move the ball and themselves faster and more often than the Nets, Bucks or Heat. Golden State averaged 327.3 passes per 100 possessions during the regular season, second-most in the NBA, according to Second Spectrum. That’s a far cry from Milwaukee’s 264.9 (30th) or Brooklyn’s 284.2 (26th), and quite a bit higher than even Miami’s 317.3 (eighth). That commitment to ball movement, as well as the ways in which the Warriors’ pursuit of both threes and rim attempts stretches opposing defenses to their limits, meant that Golden State led the NBA in both assist rate and potential assist frequency and lapped the field in secondary assist frequency.

The Celtics have shown they can snuff out (or at least dampen) solo scoring efforts with a combination of switching, aggressive help and strong individual effort at the point of attack. They held the Bucks in the second round to a scoring rate 14.6 points per 100 possessions worse than their regular-season mark, then kept the Heat 7.9 points per 100 below their average output. Whether they can do something similar to a Warriors offense that poses a far different challenge will play a central role in determining whether Boston’s turnaround ends with a title.

The effort to slow down Golden State’s scoring machine requires intense focus from defenders both on and off the ball. Overplay a passing lane or fall asleep for even a half-second, and the Warriors will hit you with their famed split action or backdoor cuts. Lay off too far, and they’ll walk their way into easy-money jumpers. 

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Golden State can be careless with the rock, as evidenced by its turnover rate that ranked 29th in the NBA during the regular season. The Warriors have kept right on turning it over at the same rate in the playoffs, and three of their four postseason losses have seen them cough it up at least 15 times. Forcing the ball out of the Warriors’ hands is essential to getting out on the break and avoiding playing against their half-court defense, which is among the best in the NBA. For a Boston team that can often see its halfcourt offense get bogged down (and has its own struggles with turnovers), generating easy baskets through its defensive ingenuity will be of paramount importance.

Boston is favored to win the series by our prediction model but is an underdog on the betting market. That’s not an unfamiliar place for the Celtics to be, as they have overcome considerably longer odds to get where they are right now. The only thing left for them to do is, simply, to do it again.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The Bucks did not have Khris Middleton for that series, but the Celtics were without both Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III at different times as well.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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