The Celtics’ final game of the 2022-23 regular season saw the team’s core players lounging on the sidelines, smiling wide as role players shot the green to win No. 57.
Before the game, Brad Stevens glowed at an impromptu pregame press conference in which he heaped praise on his first-year coach, lobbied for superstars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to earn All-NBA berths, and pondered the state of the team before the impending playoff run.
The positivity was particularly noticeable because of how different things felt at the start of the new season. Two hundred days ago, Stevens looked haggard while conducting a press conference at the Auerbach Center to detail the suspension of head coach Ime Udoka. That scandal came hot on the heels of news that starting center Robert Williams III would need a second knee surgery, and that offseason addition Danilo Gallinari had a torn ACL.
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When Celtics players met with reporters at Media Day on September 26, the absence of the usual new-season energy was palpable. A team that had insanely high expectations during the summer was pondering a very uncertain future.
So go ahead and fret how the Celtics watched the Bucks make a late-season surge to secure the No. 1 seed in the East. Boston most certainly lost its focus at times during the season, but the fact that this team emerged in the end with a (mostly) healthy roster and the second-best record in basketball felt like an accomplishment.
Now, finally, the team can put all of its energy into trying to avenge the Finals loss that fueled them at times this season.
“Whether it’s the staff, whether it’s the players, everybody has done their jobs well and the character in the room is really high," said Stevens. "You could go through each person and how they’ve added to that. The great examples are a couple of the older guys that we’ve brought in. They’ve just embraced what’s important, being about the team, doing whatever role they need to do to help us have success throughout the entire year, including as we’re going through ups and downs of the season.
"It’s so easy to get off-kilter; it’s so easy to say you’re excited about that in October and not be excited about that in February or March. So I’d say it’s the character in the room -- that these guys are about team. So I want them to all have an amazing run coming up, but it’s going to be really hard right from the get-go. But this group deserves it because of the kind of people they are."
The Celtics will open the playoffs Saturday by hosting the winner of Tuesday’s play-in matchup between No. 7 Miami and No. 8 Atlanta. It’s understandable if you’re having flashbacks to last year’s Eastern Conference finals and that tug-of-war with Miami.
The Celtics will be heavy favorites against any first-round opponent but will have to bring a sharper focus than they had against inferior competition for much of the regular season. First-year head coach Joe Mazzulla could find himself playing chess against a playoff-tested veteran in Erik Spoelstra to start his postseason career. Jimmy Butler has a knack for going up a level when the games matters most.
Boston's to-do list this week includes making sure All-Star Jaylen Brown can continue his late-season hot streak after sitting out the final two games of the regular season. Brown needed five stitches in his right hand after a freak gardening accident.
The more encouraging injury news is that Williams III spent the last week of the regular season stretching himself out toward playoff minutes, and showing that he can still be a game-changing presence for this Celtics team. The Celtics successfully managed soon-to-be 37-year-old Al Horford throughout the regular season. Marcus Smart dealt with a cocktail of maladies but Mazzulla suggested everyone should be good to go as the team ramps up for whoever is next.
Derrick White, Boston’s iron man who morphed from a projected seventh man to a mainstay of a starting five in constant flux, says it’s time for the Celtics to lock in.
"It’s the best time of the year," said White.
The Celtics have never hid their scars from losing to the Warriors in the Finals last season. But it can be maddening when there’s no way to truly atone unless you get back to that stage a year later.
So much could have gone wrong, but all things considered, a lot went right. Tatum spent a good chunk of the season as the MVP favorite and became the first Celtics player in franchise history to average over 30 points per game for the season. Brown might claw his way to an All-NBA berth that would make him eligible for a supermax extension this summer. Malcolm Brogdon often felt like the piece the Celtics were missing a year ago.
There are still plenty of question marks. Can Smart more consistently play to his Defensive Player of the Year standard? Can Playoff Al continue to hold off Father Time? Can Williams III stay healthy for the entirety of a potential two-month playoff run? Can Grant Williams shake off a frustrating regular season and impact the playoffs the way he did a year ago? And, maybe most importantly, is Mazzulla ready for the playoff spotlight?
The Celtics have all the credentials of a championship team. Boston finished second in both offensive rating (117.3) and defensive rating (110.6) this season. The Celtics’ +6.7 net rating topped the NBA by a healthy margin (more than a point ahead of the No. 2 Cavaliers).
Maybe the Celtics could have won 60 games. Maybe they should have been the No. 1 seed if they didn’t play down to inferior competition. But they always went up a level against the best teams.
Now they’ve got to do that for eight straight weeks.
The ’22-23 season could have gone sideways before it even started. The unexpected coaching change might have forced a higher level of focus out of the gates of the season and, despite a waning intensity against some lesser opponents, the Celtics more often played to their potential.
In the ramp to Saturday’s postseason opener, the green would be well served to go back and watch some of last year’s playoff run -- particularly the bitter finish. The core of this team can celebrate the strides it has quite clearly made since that playoff run, but also be reminded of how much more crisp it needs to be this time around.
Nothing the Celtics could have accomplished during the regular season would have defined this year’s team. But what happens from this point forward surely will.
The last 200 days have taught the Celtics a lot of lessons. They can take a minute to celebrate their successes. But, for all intents and purposes, the 2022-23 season starts now.