It’s been hard for a lot of Boston Celtics fans to admit they were completely wrong about their team in the early months of the 2021-22 season. While nearly no one could have foreseen the Celtics’ incredible second-half turnaround, many are acting like they did. Every C’s fan on Twitter is now claiming to be the one person who “never wanted Marcus Smart to get traded” or “knew all along Ime Udoka would be an elite coach.”
Being someone who generally regards themselves as being an honest guy, I will own up to the fact that, after a particularly depressing stretch of losses early in the season, I wondered aloud to anyone who would listen if “we were sure that Jayson Tatum was all that good.”
You can’t blame me for saying that based on what’s happened now to the team. The only thing in common between the Celtics of today and the Celtics of 2021 is that both teams wore green jerseys and had a couple guys with names that start with the letter J.
The Boston Celtics second half turnaround is unlike anything we have ever seen before
If you had told me on October 30th — after the Boston Celtics had just lost two games to the Washington Wizards, including one in double-overtime — that they would later go on to get the second seed in the Eastern Conference and sweep the Brookyln Nets in the first round of the playoffs, I would’ve recommended you see a psychiatrist.
It’s hard to imagine the same team whose offensive possessions usually began with Dennis Schroeder rolling the ball up the court and wasting half of the shot clock before swinging it out to Tatum for a missed long-two is now regarded as one of the best squads in the NBA and a favorite to win the NBA Finals.
Thinking more about this turnaround, where a below .500 team made a midseason transition to a Finals contender, led me to search for some sort of historical comparison in NBA history.
We’ve seen teams turn from bad to good in an offseason. Recent history has a lot of these examples. Look to the renaissance within the Phoenix Suns — a perennial lottery team who went on a hot streak in the bubble, added Chris Paul the ensuing offseason, and is now enjoying back-to-back years of potentially deep playoff runs.
The ‘08 Boston Celtics are a great example of this, too, as Celtics fans will remember they finished the 2006-07 season with the second-worst record in the league and then won the title the following year.
And an earlier example of this is the San Antonio Spurs transformation in the late 90’s. An injury-riddled season for David Robinson in ‘97 yielded them the top draft pick where they picked their franchise’s GOAT, Tim Duncan. The ‘Twin Towers’ of Duncan and Robinson would then go on a deep playoff run in ‘98 and a title in ‘99.
Fewer examples, though, exist where a team went from a pretender to a contender in the middle of a season. A 2012 Bleacher Report article has a list of ten teams in NBA history who made miraculous turnarounds after the All-Star break. It mainly consists of teams whose turnarounds were something of a novelty, a “hey, isn’t this cute” sort of situation.
The deepest any of the teams Bleacher Report listed went in the playoffs was the 2003-04 Miami Heat, who lost in the Eastern Conference Finals. None of them were ever considered threats to make legitimate runs, unlike the Celtics of this year.
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Outside of the NBA, there are a few examples in other sports of teams who struggled early on in the season before coming back and shocking the world.
In July of 1978, the New York Yankees were 14 and a half games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL East standings. Those Yankees would end up beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series later that same year. New England fans will probably remember that turnaround season more for the actions of one Bucky Bleeping Dent.
A more happy memory for New England fans is the 2001 New England Patriots. They started the season off as a below-average team, entering November with a 4-4 record and their star quarterback Drew Bledsoe injured. The team, now led by some guy named Tom Brady, would finish the regular season with an 11-5 record and later ended up winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl.
Still, I’m not entirely sure any of these moments fully capture the truly insane nature of the Celtics’ rejuvenation this season. In many of these cases, teams were missing star players or otherwise facing some real reasons for a crappy start to the season. The Celtics weren’t. They went from being an unwatchable embarrassment where fans and media alike were questioning whether or not the teams’ stars were all in to a legitimate Finals contender in the blink of an eye.
Still, in search of some more Twitter clout or a false sense of superiority, everyone from media analysts to your standard TD Garden urchin will try to tell you that they knew the Celtics had this in them. I ask these folks to please be honest with themselves because, around Thanksgiving, the vast majority of you were acting like the sky was falling.
With arguably, their toughest task already behind them, managing to contain two of the most uncontainable players in recent NBA history in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, it’s hard to tell what could stop these Boston Celtics from going all the way in the playoffs. And if they do, and they complete this miracle comeback, this season will be dissected for centuries by basketball historians trying to uncover how they did it.