How the Celtics Became the NBA’s Most Resilient Team, Going From January’s ‘Bottom Moment’ to June’s Finals

On January 6, the Boston Celtics blew a 25-point lead over the New York Knicks and lost in heartbreaking fashion when RJ Barrett banked a 3-pointer at the buzzer. It was the Celtics’ fifth loss in seven games and dropped them to 11th place in the Eastern Conference at 18-21.

A frustrated and disappointed Ime Udoka sat on the podium and let his team have him after this loss. The Celtics’ first-year head coach called them out for “a lack of mental toughness to fight through these tough times.”

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

Five months later, the team hasn’t just reunited, they’ve qualified for the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010. On Sunday night, the Celtics clung to a thread to beat the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 100-96.

The post-game message this time around was a bit different:

“Two Game 7s in the last two series,” Udoka said. “It shows what I said about our group. That we’ve fought through a lot of adversity this year. A resilient group. Tonight seemed to characterize our season.”

The Celtics still have their flaws. They are prone to turnover, can sometimes be taken out of games for caring too much about officials, and have problems scoring in difficult times. They lost a 14-point lead to the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of the second round, lost Game 6 of this series at home despite a late lead and saw their 13-point lead in the final minutes of Game 7 come to an end. reduce. two in the last 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 of this on purpose to make it interesting,” Jaylen Brown said. “No, just kidding. But that’s us. We’ve reacted all year, all season to adversity. Today was the biggest test, not just of the year but of our career, for mentally going into a Game 7 away after losing on our home ground, which was tough, and we did that.”

There were mini examples throughout this game. When their 17-point lead was reduced to six at half-time (partly due to dodgy refereeing), they made a quick run of 7- 1 out of the break to bring it back to double digits. When the Heat made another charge early in the fourth quarter to make it a three-point game, the Celtics went on an 8-0 run. And finally, when the Heat brought it down to two in the final seconds, Marcus Smart hit two free throws to help seal the deal.

It was the mental toughness and resilience we saw from this group throughout the playoffs. They are 3-0 in playoff games, including two wins on the road, won two Game 7s and are still a perfect 6-0 after a loss. In fact, they haven’t lost consecutive games since the end of March.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe this is the same team that sat down that fateful January night in New York City, wondering where it all went wrong. This defeat still lingers in Tatum’s mind. He referenced it again on Sunday, calling it the “lowest moment” of the season.

In another world, this could have been the beginning of the end for this band. Whether Tatum and Brown could play together was a constant topic of debate, not just in 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 person for the job.

Even internally, doubts were beginning to creep in.

“It was tough,” Tatum said. “Like really. There’s definitely been some tough times throughout the season where – don’t doubt yourself but maybe you’re wondering, aren’t you, 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 that guy?

“But I think you just have faith in yourself, faith in the work you’ve done to get to this point and keep working. It can’t rain forever. Good days were coming. I felt like we were – anything, just a click away throughout the season, and obviously once we did that, we didn’t look back.”

Not when they blew that game against the Knicks and were sitting out of play-in tournament position. Not when they snuffed out Game 5 against the Bucks in the second round and had to win two straight playoff games. Not when they fell apart in Game 6 of the Eastern Finals and had to return to Miami for Game 7 on the road.

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

“I think it’s good to enjoy it tonight and be happy because it’s tough,” Tatum said. “It’s not easy – clearly it’s my first time in the championship. It’s not easy. We know we have a tough job ahead. They’ve been there many times, they’ve won many times. I can’t wait to be there.”

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