NBA Conference Finals provide blueprint for Celtics to rebound
It’s a sentiment from a postcard. A wistful refrain from a Pink Floyd record. And for the Boston Celtics, it’s a reminder that success isn’t always the result of a linear process.
Wish you were here.
The Celtics reached the Eastern Conference Finals three times between 2017 and 2020. Twice, they ran into LeBron. Their failure to overcome the Miami Heat last year, along with an exit soundbite from Marcus Smart after losing to Brooklyn this spring, became reason to ridicule the idea of reaching the semifinal round as some sort of achievement.
Now, with Kemba Walker gone and new head coach Ime Udoka in tow, a return to the Conference Finals would seem like progress for a Boston team that finished .500 or below for the first time in six seasons.
This year’s final four teams shine a light on a lot of things: mainly, opportunity and the importance of coaching. The presence of the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks here is no surprise. But the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns weren’t on anybody’s short list of contenders. And they’re not just happy to be here: both have a legitimate shot at the Finals.
The Suns are two games from their first appearance in the championship round since 1993. Two years ago, they were a 19-win team. The arrival of coach Monty Williams and a hot bubble stint last summer pushed the franchise back toward respectability. The offseason acquisitions of future Hall of Famer Chris Paul and veteran cog Jae Crowder sent them into overdrive.
The Hawks were six games under .500 at the beginning of March, then ripped off eight consecutive wins when Nate McMillan replaced Lloyd Pierce on the bench. They got healthy, and a young roster garnished with veterans added in an offseason flurry began to bear fruit.
The lesson here is that the coach doesn’t always have to be a flashy signing. McMillan and Williams had been fired elsewhere. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue’s previous success with the Lakers was largely thought to be a byproduct of LeBron James.
Trailing 3-2 to the Nets, everybody assumed the Bucks were on the verge of a franchise-altering move like the one the Celtics just made – replacing their head coach. If Milwaukee fails to get by Atlanta, Mike Budenholzer’s job may again be in jeopardy.
It just shows the fine line between dominance and perceived disaster.
Can anybody say “the East runs through Brooklyn” anymore?
Meanwhile, the 76ers are now last year’s Celtics after walking through what appeared to be an open door and hitting their head on the frame (shout to Fab Melo, RIP).
The blueprint for Boston is right there in the final four. Each of the remaining teams have a superstar, sure, and the Celtics have two of their own. But they may not need to wait to get a third. The Green just opened the door for another key veteran addition by parting ways with Walker. And with this year’s playoffs as proof, a mixture of elite talent with a professional supporting cast could be a pulled hamstring away from the game’s biggest stage, starting point be damned.
Danny Ainge was often painted as inflexible and unwilling to disrupt his process, and that may not be entirely fair. But all the while the Celtics had “next,” other executives engaged in creative maneuvers that appear to have changed the trajectories of the final four franchises.
Now, one team is on the verge of changing its narrative forever.
Two of the conference finalists are seeking their first championship, and the Hawks haven’t won since 1958 (when they were the St. Louis Hawks). The Bucks haven’t won in 50 years. Combined, the four teams have one Finals appearance (Phoenix in ‘93) since the NBA-ABA merger of 1976.
Boston’s story the last few years has mostly been about loss – of talent and of big games. Of unfulfilled expectations. The inability to weather those losses led to diminishing returns and an evaporation of confidence in Ainge’s process, to the point where Sports Hub callers now wonder aloud if Celtic Pride still exists. It’s all very dramatic.
The Udoka hiring and added flexibility in the wake of the Walker move provides a pivot point for Brad Stevens and the organization to turn it around. They just have to get it right.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.