How Celtics grew to become the NBA’s most resilient team, from January’s ‘lowest moment’ to June’s Finals


How Celtics grew to become the NBA's most resilient team, from January's 'lowest moment' to June's Finals

On Jan. 6, the Boston Celtics blew a 25-point lead over the New York Knicks and lost in heartbreaking fashion when RJ Barrett landed the buzzer with a 3-point angle. That was the Celtics’ fifth loss in seven games and dropped them 18-21 to 11th in the Eastern Conference.

A frustrated and disappointed Ime Udoka sat on the podium, leaving it to his team after that loss. The Celtics first-year head coach bemoaned them for “lacking the mental toughness to get through these trying times.”

“I feel like he’s 100 percent right, to be honest,” Robert Williams III said at the time. “We are often upset, especially when faced with adversity. We have to find the struggle within ourselves to just come together.”

Five months later, the team has not only come together, they have reached the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. On Sunday night, the Celtics held by a thread to beat the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 100-96.

The message after the game was a little different this time:

“Two Game 7s in the last two series,” Udoka said. “That shows what I said about our group. That we have fought through many adversities this year. A resilient group. Tonight seemed typical of our season.”

The Celtics still have their weaknesses. They are turnover prone, can sometimes be taken out of games because they worry too much about officials and have trouble scoring in crunch time. They gambled away a 14-point lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of Round 2, lost Game 6 of that series at home despite having a late lead, and watched their 13-point lead grow in the final minutes of game 7 was shrunk to two in the closing seconds.

But even if they don’t always make it easy for themselves, they always have an answer.

“That’s what we do, we did all this on purpose to make it interesting,” said Jaylen Brown. “No, I’m just kidding. But we are. We’ve responded to adversity all year, all season. Today was the biggest test, not just of the year but of our career, getting mentally into a seventh game away after losing on home ground, which was tough and we did it.”

There were mini examples in this game. When their 17-point lead was cut to six at half-time (due in part to some questionable referees), they went back from the break with a quick 7-1 run to put them back in double figures. When the Heat made another attack early in the fourth quarter to make it a three-point game, the Celtics rattled off an 8-0 run. And finally, as the Heat brought it back to two in the closing seconds, Marcus Smart hit two clutch free throws to seal the deal.

That was the mental strength and resilience we saw from this group during the playoffs. They are 3-0 in eliminations, including two away wins, have won two games 7 and are still perfect 6-0 after one loss. In fact, they haven’t lost games in a row since late March.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that this is the same team that sat there on that fateful January night in New York wondering what all went wrong. Tatum still remembers that defeat. He referenced it again on Sunday, calling it the “lowest moment” of the season.

In another world, that could have been the beginning of the end for this group. Whether Tatum and Brown could play together has been a constant topic of discussion, not just in the local Boston media but nationally. Marcus Smart’s ability to lead the team was constantly questioned and he was once again the subject of trade rumours. There was also skepticism as to whether Udoka was the right man for the job.

Doubts began to creep in internally as well.

“It was tough,” Tatum said. “Like really. There were definitely some tough moments throughout the season where – not doubting yourself, but maybe asking, right, question, can we do it? You start to realize how hard it is to win. You start to question yourself are you good enough to be this guy?

“But I think you just trust yourself, trust the work you put in to get to this point and keep working. It can’t rain forever. Good days came. I felt like whatever it was, we were one step away from clicking throughout the season, and obviously we didn’t look back after we did.

Not when they screwed up that game to the Knicks and sat outside of tournament play-in position. Not when they conceded Game 5 to the Bucks in the second round and had to win two straight elimination games. Not when they fell apart on the track in Game 6 of the East Finals and had to return to Miami by road for a Game 7.

No matter the situation, the Celtics have always been confident in their abilities and eager for a chance to respond. For the past four months, they’ve focused on the next game and opportunity. Now they have their biggest yet.

“I think it’s okay to enjoy tonight and be happy because it’s hard,” Tatum said. “It’s not easy – it’s definitely my first time in the championship. It is not easy. We know we have a difficult task ahead of us. I look forward to it.”

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