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Seven playoff lessons the Celtics have learned during Tatum-Brown era

Seven playoff lessons the Celtics have learned during Tatum-Brown era originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

It has all been building to this.

Unless you're Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Tim Duncan, winning a title isn't easy. It takes time. It takes failure. It takes lessons forged only in the crucible of spring.

Michael Jordan is the greatest player whoever lived, and he didn't win a championship until Year 7. He didn't even reach a conference finals until Year 5, and it took agonizing losses to the Bad Boy Pistons in 1989 and 1990 to ready His Airness for the six titles that followed.

Jordan is by no means an outlier. LeBron James. Steph Curry. Kevin Durant. None won a title until age 27 or older, and it required considerable heartache before any could scale the final mountain. James took his talents to Miami because he couldn't win by himself. Curry didn't even reach the playoffs until his fourth season. Durant realized he'd never beat the Warriors, so he joined them.

By this standard, the Celtics are right on time. Since Jayson Tatum arrived in 2017, they've been knocking on the door by following their own inexorable – and frequently torturous –  path. Five times they've reached the conference finals, and now they're headed to their second Finals after sweeping the Indiana Pacers to finish a 12-2 romp through the Eastern Conference.

They've never been better positioned to win it all, and there's a reason for that. It's owed to the lessons their two stars, Tatum and Jaylen Brown, have learned along the way. Each playoff run has taught them something important, and a little over a week from now, we'll get to see if they're finally able to put it all together.

A year-by-year examination makes it clear that even the seasons that ended in disappointment served a purpose.

2018: 'Happy to be here' doesn't cut it

Tatum's rookie year had disaster potential when prized free agent Gordon Hayward broke his ankle after five minutes and prized trade acquisition Kyrie Irving underwent season-ending knee surgery six months later.

Instead, the Celtics improbably marched to the Eastern Conference Finals, where Brown and Tatum led the Celtics to blowout wins in Games 1 and 2 vs. LeBron's Cavs. That was the easy part. Securing that fourth victory, they soon learned, required more than just showing up. James detonated for 81 points over the final two games and the Celtics let a late lead slip away in Game 7, in part because Brown shot 5-of-18.

Hard to feel bad, though. They were so young, and had no business being there. At least they had a taste.

2019: Your best player has to care

That taste soon turned sour. Irving engaged in full I'm-outta-here mode, seeking an exit from Boston after promising to re-sign. He poisoned the club and the old guard never meshed with new. Hayward returned from injury, but wasn't the same player. Irving constantly blamed his inexperienced teammates for not knowing how to win. Even the team-first Al Horford wanted out.

The result was a disaster. The C's swept the outgunned Pacers in the first round and then smoked the Bucks in Game 1 of the conference semifinals, but the Jenga tower swayed, and everything finally collapsed in Game 5 when the Bucks blew out the C's while Irving quit.

No one could call it a surprise. Irving had been steering the ship towards the rocks all season, and if your star isn't invested, you're done.

2020: Do not give playoff teams an opening

The Bubble playoffs were weird for obvious reasons, but they gave the Celtics their first prolonged lesson in the dangers of letting off the gas. After sweeping the Sixers in the first round, they were just a second away from taking a 3-0 lead on the Raptors before OG Anunoby drilled a shocking buzzer-beater. A cakewalk turned into a dogfight, and the Celtics barely escaped in seven games.

They paid the price in the conference finals vs. the Heat when veteran guard Kemba Walker broke down. The Celtics blew big leads in Games 1 and 2 and lost to an inferior team in six games. They did not repeat that mistake in any of the first three rounds this year.

2021: Tatum can be the best player on the floor

The 2021 season was easily the worst of the Tatum and Brown Era. The Celtics were a .500 club trying to find its way with Walker hobbled and no depth beyond Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart.

They limped into the playoffs vs. Kyrie's newest super team in Brooklyn. That five-game blowout wasn't a total loss, however. In Game 3, despite sharing the court with three future Hall of Famers in Irving, Durant, and James Harden, Tatum was unstoppable. He exploded for 50 points in a 125-119 victory, and even if it wasn't sustainable, it served notice: the Celtics were building around a superstar.

2022: Experienced teams expose weaknesses

The best Celtics team of this era still had the most painful lesson to learn. The C's swept the Nets in the first round, outlasted the Bucks in seven, and survived the scrappy Heat to meet the Warriors in the Finals.

Boston entered the series as favorites, but Golden State couldn't be judged simply on paper. Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green had already won three titles, and their experience proved the difference, even after the Celtics stole Game 1 and found themselves five minutes away from taking a 3-1 lead at home.

The Warriors won because Curry went supernova with one of the greatest shooting exhibitions ever witnessed in true superstar fashion. Thompson, maligned as a step slow all playoffs, improbably became a Splash Brother again, finding reservoirs of championship mettle. And when the Warriors needed an emotional lift, Green delivered it not just with physical play, but by spearheading a defensive approach that forced Brown and Tatum to go left, resulting in unforced errors.

The Celtics may have been the more talented overall team, but the Warriors were champions.

2023: The mix matters

This iteration of the Celtics had run its course, blowing big leads and allowing inferior opponents to hang around. It finally doomed them in the playoffs.

The team should've belonged to Tatum and Brown, but Smart couldn't quite let go. The veteran guard's inflated opinion of his place in the hierarchy was becoming untenable, and the Celtics learned that lesson for good in a rollercoaster postseason.

The warning signs were there when the Hawks sent the series back to Atlanta for Game 6 because no one guarded All-Star Trae Young. They blinked ominously when the C's watched the Sixers win Game 1 without MVP Joel Embiid and then blew a chance to win Game 4 when Smart's would-be game-winner came a split second after the buzzer. And they screamed like a klaxon when the Celtics lost the first three games of the conference finals to the eighth-seeded Heat.

The C's rallied to make that a series and force Game 7, where Tatum's sprained ankle derailed their comeback hopes. But it was clear that even if they had reached the Finals, they weren't going to beat the Nuggets.

So Brad Stevens went to work.

2024: Put it all together

It will be two more weeks before we know how this postseason ends, but the Celtics have never been better positioned. Stevens earned Executive of the Year honors after swapping Smart for center Kristaps Porzingis to diversify the offense, and then replacing the former's grit and intangibles with the steadier Jrue Holiday.

The Celtics have been a force all season, with Tatum and Brown clearly the alphas and stars. They did not let the Heat, Cavs, or Pacers build any momentum in the first three rounds, and now they presumably await the Mavericks in the Finals, where we'll get to see if they can learn the final lesson of all.