While the Boston Celtics fell to the Golden State Warriors in this year’s NBA Finals in six games, this season should nonetheless be considered a win for them.
Their about-face from a 16-19 record last December to a 51-31 finish that earned them the second seed in the Eastern Conference was one of the most intriguing storylines of the regular season. What made their run even more impressive was that they did it with their defense.
Rookie head coach Ime Udoka successfully refocused their team into a hard-nosed and defensive-minded unit that imposed its will on the rest of the NBA through its size and physicality. This helped Marcus Smart become the first guard to win the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award since 1996 as the 6’3 guard was the tip of the spear for their air-tight defense.
The commitment on that end of the floor from their offensive-minded superstar Jayson Tatum was also a key hurdle and helped inspire the turnaround from their tumultuous start. He had his finest campaign to date, averaging career-highs across the board during the regular season with 26.9 points, eight rebounds, and 4.4 assists.
Although Tatum was shut down in the NBA Finals by the defense of Andrew Wiggins, the development of the 24-year-old forward into a more well-rounded player during the three prior rounds is a major reason for Celtics fans to remain optimistic and even bullish on their team’s prospects moving forward.
The chemistry that Tatum and Jaylen Brown have developed amidst the persistent media narrative that they cannot coexist has also been a promising development over these past few months. Brown was arguably Boston’s best player in the last two rounds of the playoffs, especially in the NBA Finals where he played a crucial role as they raced out to a 2-1 lead.
The 25-year-old forward had his best outing versus the Warriors in Game 6 where he scored 34 points on 12-of-23 shooting together with seven rebounds, three assists, and a steal in an attempt to force a Game 7. His efforts ultimately were for naught, but there is no reason to doubt that the best is yet to come for the third overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft.
Though the same cannot be said for their 36-year-old veteran forward Al Horford, he still provided a couple of vintage performances in his first ever NBA Finals. Rejuvenated in his return to Boston after a two-year hiatus, he hit six threes en route to a 26-point showing in Game 1 and had 19 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two steals, and a block in Game 6.
Horford played a key role as a switchable defender and stabilizing presence for the Celtics all year long and while it will be difficult to expect him to continue playing such an important role in their rotation given his age, some of his younger teammates have emerged as more than viable replacements for him.
Robert Williams, in particular, looks primed to become a dominant force in the middle for this team after he was a revelation all year long in his first season as a full-time starter. He averaged 10 points, 9.6 rebounds, two assists, 0.9 steals, and 2.2 blocks in 61 appearances (and starts) during the regular season and was a difference maker in the playoffs despite playing with a hobbled knee.
In Game 6 against Golden State, Williams had 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists, and five blocks. His mobility was clearly limited, yet he was one of the most active Boston players for the evening, especially during the fourth quarter as they tried to mount one final, albeit unsuccessful, rally to steal the game.
The 24-year-old had a particular stretch in that final period that should have Celtics fans excited for Williams’ future. He flashed his versatility with a nifty pass to a cutting Tatum off a give-and-go then emphatically blocked a pull-up three-pointer from Jordan Poole on the ensuing possession.
It will be interesting to see what a healthy Williams can do next year following his successful first full run as a starter and he will be just as important for their future prospects as Tatum, Brown, and Smart are.
Given the youth of their core, it is likely that this will not be the last time that this group will make it to the NBA Finals. These kinds of losses tend to build character and should help them grow heading into next season.
However, the competition in the Eastern Conference will remain tight next year with the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat, two teams that pushed Boston to seven games in these playoffs, expected to come back stronger after their heartbreaking eliminations.
A return trip to the NBA Finals will not be easy for these young Celtics, but they have all the tools in place to make that a reality and try once again to win their franchise’s 18th NBA title.