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The 2021-22 season saw the Boston Celtics come achingly close to an 18th NBA Championship, as they slipped to a 4-2 defeat to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals series last month.
Their resurrection from a team that was three games under .500 in early January under a first-time head coach to being within two victories of winning the title was remarkable, and Boston is hopeful that there is more to come in 2022-23.
The young core of their team is vowing to use the pain of their Finals defeat as motivation to work even harder in the current offseason and return to action in the new season as a re-established 'big hitter' in the Eastern Conference.
“The biggest message was learn from this, grow from it, take this experience and see there is another level to get to,” coach Ime Udoka said. “Just don’t come back the same as players, coaching staff. Let this fuel you throughout the offseason into next year.”
Udoka, an American-Nigerian who represented the West African country at international level, took over at the Celtics a year ago (replacing Brad Stevens after his eight-year tenure) and harnessed the experience of veteran pieces like Marcus Smart and Al Horford to slowly mold a culture built on defence and unselfishness on offence.
It paid off in the second half of the season as the Celtics turned an 18-23 record into a 51-31 mark at season’s end, good enough to claim the East’s second seed. After a sweep of Brooklyn, followed by back-to-back seven-game wins over defending champion Milwaukee and top seed Miami, Boston seemed unstoppable.
The Celtics took an early 2-1 finals lead on Golden State but ultimately couldn’t sidestep its propensity for self-inflicted mistakes against the Warriors. The defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, but star man Jayson Tatum is taking the positives from the situation.
“It’s hard. It’s hard getting to this point,” Tatum said. “It’s even harder getting over it, the hump, and win it. It’s been a long journey, a long process. That’s what I took from it: it’s tough. You got to take it up another level to do what we want to do.”
The good news for Boston is that their coach has experienced both extremes of the finals. He was a first-year assistant under Gregg Popovich when San Antonio lost to Miami in the finals in 2013, and there the following year when the Spurs beat the Heat to claim the title.
“We improved in a lot of areas but fell short of our ultimate goal,” Udoka said. “Some guys didn’t play their best. That’s going to motivate guys throughout the season. The message is everybody come back better. Let’s not be satisfied. It’s not guaranteed you’re going to be here.”
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