Advertisement

From roster to mindset, how Celtics have changed since 2022 Finals

From roster to mindset, how Celtics have changed since 2022 Finals originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

As the Boston Celtics celebrated their sweep of the Indiana Pacers, punching their ticket back to the NBA Finals, the team gathered the 60 some-odd personnel crammed in the visitor’s locker room inside Gainbridge Fieldhouse for a photo.

There were players, coaches, trainers, doctors, equipment managers, personal assistants, media relations staffers, and front office staff. Even Al Horford’s son, Ean, muscled into the snapshot.

https://www.instagram.com/p/C7jbEbYuXb5

But it’s somewhat notable who wasn't in the photo: Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens.

Back in his native Indianapolis, Stevens quietly congratulated his players and staff and, with son Brady by his side, slipped into the night along with team ownership.

Stevens has done his best to avoid the spotlight lately, even after winning Executive of the Year for constructing a Boston team that has won 76 of the 96 games played since the start of the regular season.

Stevens didn’t want a press conference after winning the peer-voted honor and has done everything he can to keep the focus on his players as the Celtics have steamrolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Boston finished the 2023-24 season with a 53-13 mark against all East opponents.

Two years removed from being denied that elusive Banner 18, the Celtics are back on the title stage and will face the Mavericks in this year's NBA Finals. But it’s clear just how different this team is from that 2021-22 squad — both with new personnel, but maybe more importantly, with a different outlook.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown remain the pillars, but Stevens shook up the core of this team last offseason, bringing in Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis in place of Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon, and Robert Williams III. Holiday, with his championship experience, has been key in Boston accelerating through the East. Porzingis might be the X-factor if the Celtics are to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month.

The maturation of Tatum and Brown, combined with the way the new pieces have fit and a heavy dose of Mr. Positive Derrick White, have fueled Boston’s on-court domination.

"I got to give credit to Brad because he has a feel for what we have here in this locker room and putting those pieces together,” Horford told us last month. "And knowing the type of characters that [Porzingis and Holiday] have, the kind of people that they are.

"In our locker room, we have a great group of guys, guys that want to win, and they want to compete. Jayson and Jaylen, they just want to win. They want to enjoy this journey and they've been very accepting and welcoming. That’s why I feel like we've been able to make it work.”

The 2021-22 Celtics (and last season's similar-looking version, beyond the head coach change) had a propensity to slip into bad habits. Those teams routinely made their lives more difficult than they needed to be.

This season's team has operated with a business-like approach since the team first huddled in October. Tatum and Brown returned to Boston early to set a tone for this season's squad and Stevens built a roster filled with players yearning to simply thrive in their roles.

Boston’s 2021-22 season featured a furious second-half surge that culminated with two seven-game heavyweight battles against the Bucks and Heat in the East playoffs. The Celtics seemed to run out of gas against the Warriors in the Finals, despite being just minutes away from taking a 3-1 series lead.

Players have noted how this season feels far more methodical. This year’s team entered the season with a clear title goal but has embraced the journey to get to that opportunity.

"I felt like [2021-22] was a lot more of just like a rush, or a sprint kind of a thing,” said backup big man Luke Kornet. “Obviously, we're a much different team and a lot of different players, but … just being able to maintain the competitive edge every single game this year. I feel like we've never really looked past the day that we have at hand and kind of trusting that that the work will keep showing up.”

In short, Boston didn’t skip steps. Even with that obvious end goal, the team kept its foot on the gas with only the occasional slip-up. Injuries and absences rarely caused this team to hit a bump in the road.

Still, it's been jarring to watch the Celtics dismiss a trio of East foes with only two Game 2 missteps along the way. You can fret the “tomato cans” they’ve encountered — we’d counter that it’s part of the perk of being the No. 1 seed -- but if you step back, it might simply be that the Celtics are that good. Remember that Boston has navigated the past month without the services of Porzingis, who strained his calf in Round 1 against Miami.

Brown, fueled by the best two-way season of his career, has been a playoff monster and has the Larry Bird Trophy to prove it. Tatum, despite constant nitpicking about his overall efficiency, has put his imprint all over Boston’s playoff run. It truly feels like both players have embraced the notion of sacrifice, both seemingly recognizing that only banners will cement their legacies in Boston.

Holiday is a proven winner who routinely gives this team what it needs, particularly over the past two rounds. White still has a knack for the big-time shot (like the go-ahead 3-pointer against the Pacers in Game 4). That tandem will be tested by the Mavericks' 1-2 backcourt punch of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

Al Horford will turn 38 before the Finals tip. It’s clear how much this opportunity means to him. Despite all his NBA success, a Larry O’Brien Trophy is the one thing that has evaded the two-time college champ. Horford got thrust into a larger role with Porzingis sidelined the past 10 games and he keeps making plays like someone a decade younger. What’s more, how can anyone on this team not give maximum effort when Horford is out there emptying the tank?

Back in 2022, then-coach Ime Udoka didn’t always trust his bench. He leaned heavily on a six-man core (Tatum, Brown, Horford, White, Smart, and Williams III) and sprinkled in only small dashes of Grant Williams and Payton Pritchard. This year, Pritchard, Sam Hauser, and Kornet have each logged important minutes. Last round, Mazzulla went with Oshae Brissett and Xavier Tillman in spots.

Poor Hauser can’t get anything to fall beyond the 3-point arc lately and still owns a +15.6 net rating this postseason, tops among regulars. Pritchard has proven he’s the type who can get kicked in the face (like in Game 4 against Indiana) and just keep fighting.

It feels like the Celtics are in a really good place, particularly if Porzingis gets healthy for the start of the Finals. But it was coming up short in each of the past two seasons that might have taught the Celtics what needed to change in order to get over the final hump.

Stevens tweaked the roster. The core tweaked their mindset. We’ll soon find out if the changes were enough to end the 16-year quest for Banner 18.