“New year. New me.”
It’s often promised. It’s rarely fulfilled. Sure, we might all eat better, get organized, hit the gym, return texts and start writing that novel in January. By Groundhog Day, we’re back to leading our Groundhog Day lives again. Same old stuff, same old bad habits.
Not the 2022 Boston Celtics.
But this isn’t just about the Celtics from earlier in the 2021-22 season. This dates back to the Celtics from the 2021 playoffs.
Because of the pandemic, the calendars don’t match up. But a year ago in NBA time, the Celtics were mercifully beaten in Brooklyn to cap a 4-1 first round series win for the Nets.
A year later Boston was back in Brooklyn and the Celtics put the finishing touches on a first round sweep of the Nets.
Call it “New year. New me. Extended Edition.”
That 2020-21 team limped, literally, to that finish line. Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart are the only starters from that loss that are still with the Celtics. Overall, only six of the 14 Celtics who were active for that game are still on the team.
Any successful “New year. New me.” approach has to start immediately. You can’t wait until mid-January. You’ll never get started if you don’t start immediately.
That Game 5 loss to the Nets happened on June 1. On June 2, Danny Ainge retired and Brad Stevens was promoted to lead Boston’s basketball operations. A couple of weeks later, Stevens traded popular, but injury-plagued point guard Kemba Walker in a salary-clearing move that returned Al Horford to Boston. Less than a week later, Stevens tabbed Ime Udoka to replace him as the Celtics head coach.
Three major moves in the span of a few weeks to help the Boston Celtics find their New Me.
A whirlwind of other moves followed, as Stevens and Udoka tried to remake the roster in support of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Stevens said he wanted to build a team that was “gritty and tough” and one “Boston can be proud of”. Udoka said the Celtics would “play hard, defend and share the ball”.
When the 2021-22 season tipped off, there was a sense of freshness around the Celtics. A lot of the faces were similar, yet things still felt new.
Oh, how new they were. Boston often looked like a group of guys who met each other just weeks before. And in a lot of ways, they had.
Sure, Al Horford had been around before. But this wasn’t the team full of kids he had left previously. These guys had their experiences without him. Horford is often called the “Team Dad”, but he’s really more of that older brother who came home from college. He’s got some knowledge to share, but you’ve got to want to hear it. And boy did they need to hear it.
Marcus Smart has been in Boston for what seems like forever. But this season, for the first time ever, the team was handing him the keys and letting him drive. If Al was the wise older brother, Marcus was the teenager who just got his license. It was going to be pedal to the metal, full speed all the time and sometimes slamming on the breaks just in time. With Smart behind the wheel, you wonder how you ended up where you did, while being thankful you were in one piece. And then, only after you’re safely parked, do you laugh about the wild ride to get there.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown weren’t the precocious youngsters anymore. As Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka said, they are the Celtics “pillars”. More than anyone else, Tatum and Brown hold this team’s considerable ceiling aloft.
But pillars don’t work without a solid foundation. And sometimes it takes a while for that foundation to cure and settle.
The NBA season is a constant pour. If you don’t stay on top of it, your foundation becomes a bumpy, uneven mess. That was October through December for the Celtics.
But, like the good mason he is, Ime Udoka was patiently relentless. You can’t let your concrete settle when it’s bumpy and uneven. But you also can’t constantly mess with it. You beat it up some, then you smooth it out again. Sometimes you even scrap some sections and replace them when necessary.
When you’re done, you have a solid foundation. Then, and only then, can your pillars go about lifting that ceiling skyward.
Over the summer, Boston put the bad close to the 2020-21 season behind them. But that bumpiness and unevenness lingered for a bit longer. But the coach and his players went to work. And they did it with relentless patience.
After each frustrating loss, the Celtics, to a man, would remind us: “It will get better.” They promised to work hard and to figure things out. Udoka was going to chip away at those rough pieces, including a few on his shoulders, until he got things smoothed out.
And then, in a world full we all too often accept broken promises, the Celtics came through.
As the calendar flipped to 2022, the Boston Celtics became a winning machine. In 50 games since the start of the year, the Celtics are 38-12, including 4-0 in the playoffs.
This team was so good, they won’t even when a large portion of the fanbase didn’t want them to. When it became clear that winning the regular season finale would pit the Celtics against the Nets in the playoffs, a not-quiet collective voice rose to full throat begging Boston to lose to skip playing Brooklyn.
That night, before the Celtics shellacked the Grizzles, Ime Udoka said “We’re worried about us. We’re worried about being the best basketball team we can be. We’ll play and let the chips fall where they may.”
The message was as clear as it was on Day 1 of training camp: Embrace the grind, don’t run from it.
The difference? Now, everyone was hearing it, not just those within the Celtics organization. This message from Udoka and his team was for everyone: Have no fear of anyone, because we certainly don’t.
Games 2 and 4 against the Nets both offered chances to crumble. Horford fouled out of Game 2 and Tatum did the same in Game 4. Both times, this happened with the game still in the balance. The 2021 Celtics would have been shaken, cracks would have formed and that ceiling would have come crashing down.
Not anymore. The foundation is strong now. Even with a pillar missing, the other one is so good and so strong, that he holds up his end until another pillar slides in to temporarily replace the missing one.
After Boston swept Brooklyn, the team’s leaders all repeated similar versions of “We aren’t ducking anybody.” Marcus Smart probably put it best when he said the Celtics heard the talk that they should have avoided the Nets: “We heard it. We all heard it. We laughed at it. We don’t duck or dodge nobody.”
The 2022 Boston Celtics have embraced “New year. New me.” in a major way. Their New Me fears no one, plays hard, embraces the grind, defends to the end, shares the ball and wins together.
And they’re just getting started.