Chris Forsberg

After painful detours, Celtics are primed to reach Finals destination

Boston's winding road to the 2024 Finals traces all the way back to 2018.

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Two thousand, two hundred and two days ago, the future of the Boston Celtics seemed limitless.

Even as Boston’s improbable 2018 playoff surge came to abrupt halt at the doorstep of the NBA Finals, with LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers stiff-arming the injury-depleted Celtics at the finish line of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden, Banner 18 never felt closer.

The Celtics’ playoff run had been fueled by 20-year-old rookie Jayson Tatum and 21-year-old sophomore Jaylen Brown. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were coming back healthy the following season. Head coach Brad Stevens seemed to get every last drop of potential out of whatever roster he was bestowed. So even amid the obvious sting of that playoff defeat, there was an undeniable optimism about what lied ahead.

“When it ends, it's painful. That is part of the path,” Stevens said that night. "And so we have to let it motivate us.”

But in that moment, no one could have known just how much pain was ahead, or just how long it would take for the Celtics to truly shuffle closer to completing its title quest.

Nothing is promised in the NBA. Optimism turns to uncertainty in the bounce of a ball. Pain has been part of Boston’s path for 2,202 days. But, over the next 18 days, Boston has a chance to erase a lot of bad memories.

As the Celtics tip off Game 1 of the NBA Finals by hosting the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night at TD Garden,  Banner 18 is within their grasp.

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Seven-hundred and twenty-one days ago, the pain crescendoed for the core of this Celtics team.

Another magical playoff run delivered this team to the 2022 Finals stage. Boston had been minutes away from taking a 3-1 series lead over the vaunted Golden State Warriors. Instead, they were watching that same opponent celebrate a six-game triumph on the Garden floor.

Even with Tatum and Brown blossoming into All-Star talents, the Celtics ran out of a gas after navigating a grueling playoff run. Four years after optimism tempered that Game 7 loss to the Cavaliers, the uncertainty of how long it would take to get back to the title stage hovered as Boston digested not being able to get over the last hump.

"We know what it feels like to get to this point,” Tatum said after the Game 6 loss to Golden State. “Getting here and not accomplishing it, it's tough. You don't want to feel like this again but you want to get back here.”

The Celtics should have known that nothing is promised in the NBA.

In the aftermath of that 2018 playoff run, the wheels came flying off the Celtics’ car during an utterly miserable 2019 season. Kyrie Irving, entering a contract year, declared his intentions to re-sign in Boston before the start of the 2018-19 campaign then sulked his way through a season in which it became clear he was gone. No one on a talent-gushing Celtics roster was willing to sacrifice individual stats for the betterment of the team.

After an unceremonious second-round exit, Irving rushed to join Kevin Durant in Brooklyn. Al Horford chased a payday to join rival Philly. The Celtics were left to pick up the pieces with a very uncertain path forward.

The ascension of Tatum and Brown ensured the team stayed afloat. Heck, the Celtics nearly surged to the Finals amid the Bubble weirdness of the 2020 playoffs. But a first-round playoff exit at the hands of Irving and the Nets in 2021 made it feel like Banner 18 had never been further away.

The Boston Celtics are headed back to the NBA Finals for the second time in three years. How did the 2023-24 team come to be? We take a closer look at how Brad Stevens put this dominant group together.

One thousand, one hundred days ago, the Celtics enacted Phase 1 of an organizational shakeup aimed at putting the team back on a title track.

On a sleepy Wednesday morning, the day after the team's season ended in Brooklyn, the Celtics announced that Danny Ainge would be retiring and, more shockingly, Stevens would elevate from coach to general manager.

It’s easy to forget now given all the bold moves that Stevens has made to reconstruct a title contender, but there was uncertainty about whether he could thrive as team architect. Would Stevens be able to make bold moves, particularly given the relationship he had forged with his players as head coach?

That question got a quick answer when he dealt beloved guard Kemba Walker to Oklahoma City to bring back Al Horford in his first days on the job. Stevens hired Ime Udoka as his replacement as Celtics coach and Udoka’s tough love seemed to fuel this team in a way that Stevens’ voice no longer could.

Despite some bumps in the road, the Celtics’ leaned into a defensive identity late in the 2021-22 season and embarked on a furious second-half run that would deliver them all the way to the Finals stage.

Even in defeat, it didn’t feel like it would be long before Boston might be back in the title round. But nothing is promised.

Udoka was dismissed from the team of the eve of the 2022-23 season, unheralded back-row assistant Joe Mazzulla was promoted in his place, and a cloud hovered over the Celtics as they embarked on a quest to get back to the Finals.

It took a little longer than they might have liked, but Boston is here now. And the next 18 days could change just how we look back at all the crazy twists and turns of the previous 2,202 days.

Five days ago, Tatum sat at the podium in the Auerbach Center pondering Boston’s return to the Finals.

"You don’t always get a second chance,” said Tatum.

Unlike all those playoff series that Boston entered as the feisty underdog, the Celtics will tip off the 2024 Finals as heavy favorites to secure Banner 18. There’s a pressure present that wasn’t there in 2022. But there’s also an experience that might better position the team to get to the finish line of its long title quest.

Over these past 2,202 days, the Celtics have experienced all of the emotions. Individually, there have been extreme highs. Tatum and Brown have further evolved into All-NBA players and are reaping the rewards. Brown signed the richest contract in NBA history last summer and Tatum should sign a big-money pact this offseason.

Both players have learned that none of their individual accolades matter unless you raise a banner. When you play in Boston, it’s not about the stat lines you produce and the awards you secure, but the Larry O’Brien Trophies you add to the collection.

It doesn’t feel like a stretch to suggest that, if Tatum and Brown get to the finish line of this title hunt, their legacies will forever change in Boston. If they put an 18th title banner in the rafters, they might as well start sewing another banner that houses retired numbers, because both 0 and 7 will be trending toward going skyward.

That they have to go through Irving, whose absence was conspicuous on the Boston bench in Game 7 of that 2018 loss, only brings this story that much more full circle.

Of course, Tatum and Brown will not go this alone. Stevens, in Phase 2 of this team’s recent overhaul, made two bold decisions to acquire Kristaps Porzingis and NBA champion Jrue Holiday. It meant dealing away core pieces in Marcus Smart and Robert Williams III. But the moves undeniably made Boston a more dynamic team with a higher ceiling. That much has been proven as the Celtics have compiled a 76-20 record since the start of the regular season.

A convincing Finals triumph would position Boston as one of the most dominant teams in NBA history. Quibble about the strength of opposition on this postseason journey, but Boston has flexed on all comers this season.

No one could have possibly seen all the twists and turns that have occurred since that 2018 loss in the East Finals. There has been a lot more strife than anyone could reasonably expect on the quest to add to Boston’s banner collection.

But the opportunity is there again. Banner 18 has never felt closer. And yet the Celtics know all too well that nothing is promised. There is work to do.

Everything over the past 2,202 days has built to this moment. The path has been bumpy and there have been a lot of painful detours along the way.

All of which might just make it that much more satisfying if the Celtics are able to complete this journey. Pain was part of the path but an indescribable joy might wait at the finish line.

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