The Celtics took their fans on a roller coaster this season, from below .500 at 23-24 on Jan. 21 to 51-31 at season’s end, from play-in game contention to battling for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and spent their first Finals run in more than a decade oscillating between looking invincible and eminently beatable.
They could be a buzz saw or a turnover machine, an impenetrable defense or a porous one, thrilling and frustrating in equal measure, but 2021-22 was always exciting for Boston.
Here’s a look at some of the best and most memorable moments from a remarkable season that fell just short of Banner No. 18.
Jayson Tatum’s buzzer-beater against the Nets
Considering the opponent (Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and the Brooklyn Nets), the situation (a razor-thin Game 1 in an opening-round series), and the outcome, it’s easy to argue Tatum’s last-second layup was the high point of the season. Tatum’s first signature playoff moment since making this team his own meant Irving’s 39-point performance in front of a wrathful TD Garden crowd was all for naught, and kickstarted the first-round sweep.
From forcing Durant into a fadeaway three to get a stop, to Ime Udoka’s decision not to call a timeout and let things play out, to Marcus Smart wisely pump-faking on a three that every Celtic fan thought — and dreaded — he’d hoist up, to Tatum spinning past Irving; it doesn’t get much better. Alongside his 46-point Game 6 to stave off elimination against the Bucks, this was the very best of Tatum’s performance in the playoffs.
Smart wins Defensive Player of the Year
Boston’s bulldog point guard has long polarized the fan base, loved by many for his defense, hustle, and basketball IQ, leaving others frustrated with his shot selection and oft-misplaced confidence from behind the 3-point line. But at the end of a career year, most were happy to see Smart get his due, as he became the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1996.
It was a crowning achievement for one of the league’s very best backcourt defenders, who celebrated the award by strolling into TD Garden for Game 2 against the Nets in a boxer’s robe, “DPOY” emblazoned across the back in gold lettering.
Ime Udoka takes charge
When Brad Stevens ascended to the front office in place of Danny Ainge, the new president of basketball operations looked to replace himself as coach with a new voice; Ime Udoka turned out to be just the right one.
After a difficult first half of the season, the team responded to Udoka’s straightforward style as he challenged his players en route to a huge midseason turnaround that helped earn him a fourth-place finish in NBA Coach of the Year voting.
“There are times when I turn the ball over, and [Udoka] will pull me aside and say, ‘What the [expletive] are you doing? Get your team together!’” Smart told The Ringer’s Jackie MacMullan. “I’m good with it.”
Jaylen Brown’s first 50-point game
Often the second option to Tatum, Brown proved on several occasions this season that he can take over when needed, most notably in a 50-point eruption in a win over the Magic in January. There was no stat-padding here; Brown’s first venture over the half-century mark helped the Celtics storm back from a 14-point deficit in the final minutes to notch a thrilling overtime win.
The Al Horford game(s)
It was a magical playoff run for Big Al, who made his first Finals appearance in his 15th season, with the five-time All-Star at the center of multiple huge wins just a year after he was shut down by the tanking Thunder and flipped back to Boston in a salary dump for Kemba Walker.
From the moment Giannis Antetokounmpo drew Horford’s ire in Game 4 of Boston’s second-round series against the Bucks, Horford was brilliant, pouring in an efficient 30 points — a playoff career-high at age 35 — punctuated by a blow-by dunk on one of the game’s elite rim protectors.
Horford added 26 points on 6 of 8 shooting from deep to lead Boston to an unlikely comeback win in his Finals debut, and was one of the few Celtics to show up in Golden State’s Game 6 clincher.
Tatum’s ascension to MVP candidacy, first team All-NBA
Debates over Tatum’s “superstar” status will rage long into the summer, but it takes a special talent to outduel Durant the way Boston’s cornerstone did in a Sunday afternoon win over the Nets in March.
Tatum poured in 34 of his 54 points in the second half to lead the Celtics to a 126-120 win despite 37 points from Durant, Tatum’s fourth 50-point outing tying Larry Bird for the most in franchise history.
It was the magnum opus in a brilliant season for the 24-year-old who went to another level after the All-Star break, averaging 30.4 points on 50.6 percent shooting and 41.5 percent from three in the second half. He eclipsed 50 points twice and 40 points five times, threw down his fair share of highlight-reel dunks, and played excellent defense on one of the league’s best units to earn himself a sixth-place finish in MVP voting and his first All-NBA first team nod.
Despite his difficulties in the Finals, the 2021-22 season will go down as the one in which Tatum went to another level.
Brown punctuates KG’s big night in style
There are plenty of jams to choose from with Boston’s high-flying wing, with an overtime poster on Charlotte’s Miles Bridges a strong contender, as is Brown forcing All-Defense center Bam Adebayo to make a business decision in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals.
At the top, however, is Brown’s detonation over Dallas’s Maxi Kleber. The between-the-legs dribble to split the defenders and the chest-to-chest slam, finished off with acknowledgement from Kevin Garnett on No. 5′s jersey retirement night; this dunk might be the biggest get-off-your-seat moment of the year.
Iso Joe, back for more
It was hard not to feel good about Joe Johnson’s surprise return to the COVID-ravaged Celtics on a 10-day contract, two months short of 20 years since they traded him to Phoenix in early 2002.
Three and a half years after his last NBA appearance, Johnson suited up and saw the floor for one night in the final minutes of a blowout win over Cleveland in December, got to his spot at the elbow, and sent the TD Garden crowd into a frenzy.
Deadline day dealing
Boston’s mid-season turnaround was well underway by the trade deadline, but Brad Stevens’s final-day maneuvering cemented the Celtics as title contenders. He dumped guards Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder, and P.J. Dozier, opening up playing time for Payton Pritchard — averaging 4.8 points per game in a shade over 12 minutes before the deadline, 8.6 points in 17.4 minutes the rest of the way — and picked up Derrick White, who was very solid down the stretch and for much of the playoffs.
Stevens also punted on forwards Romeo Langford and Bol Bol and parted with centers Bruno Fernando and Enes Freedom, bringing back Daniel Theis, a much-improved backup option down low, all while pushing the Celtics $2.5 million under the luxury tax line.
Had Boston not won eight of its previous nine and vaulted into contention, it’s hard to know whether Stevens would have been so aggressive at the deadline, but things broke right for him and the Celtics at the right time, and the rest is history.
Amin Touri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.