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Forsberg: Time to pause and appreciate how far Celtics have come

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Seedings sweet spots and possible first-round matchups will dominate the conversation around the Boston Celtics for the next few days while the team puts a bow on the 2021-22 regular season.

But before we look forward, let's take a moment to look back.

Ninety days ago, the Celtics were 18-21. In the aftermath of Evan Fournier’s revenge game inside Madison Square Garden, the Celtics slipped outside the play-in bracket while dipping to 11th in the Eastern Conference.

It’s wild now to go back and read the postgame quotes from that night. Ime Udoka blistered his team for a lack of mental toughness and leadership.

"Either we're going to make some adjustments and get tired of it, or it's going to keep happening," scolded Udoka.

During his turn at the podium, Jayson Tatum got nostalgic thinking about past successes.

"I think we just have to look at the big picture and the grand scheme of things and look back to those years when we was going to the conference finals and make you really appreciate those moments. Because it’s hard, it’s not easy," said Tatum.

"I think early on, probably my rookie year, I thought that was just normal. Winning all those games, winning games in the playoffs, probably taking it for granted a little bit. But to enjoy those moments, stuff like this happens and I think it makes you appreciate times like that even more, just knowing how hard it is to win in this league."

 

For the first time since Tatum’s rookie campaign, the Celtics reached 50 wins again with Wednesday night’s thrashing of the Chicago Bulls. (To be fair, the team would have reached that plateau in 2020 if not for the pandemic shortened season.) Boston is now 32-9 (.780 winning percentage) over a half-season worth of games, a staggering 64-win pace.

A once-maddening Celtics team doesn't cough up big leads any more. They dominate teams early and then throw it on cruise control late. Their toughness will most certainly be tested in the postseason but for the past three months this team has been an NBA buzzsaw.

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Celtics players insist there hasn’t been time to stop and savor the surge. Maybe they’ll be able to do that during the weeklong break between Sunday’s regular-season finale in Memphis and the start of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. But we cannot remember a turnaround like this in Celtics history.

Expectations have spiked and the focus now is understandably on the ideal playoff path. But a Celtics team that looked rudderless and stuck in mud back in early January is now positioned as a legitimate threat to sail out of the East. And the team ought to take a minute to celebrate that shift.

But unlike that night in January, no one on the Celtics seems eager to dwell on the past.

"When you take it in that context of how poorly we started or the games we gave away early, [50 wins] means something," said Udoka. "When I signed on here, it was pretty much a given we were going to win 50 games. That was the expectation.

"As far as that, not surprised, but because of the way we started going on the run we had in the second half or so, it's a good thing to get back to where we expected to be."

Go ahead and obsess about what lies ahead. Will the Celtics tempt the Basketball Gods and downshift on Thursday night in Milwaukee despite controlling their destiny with the No. 2 seed? Should Boston rest players and be content to slide to No. 3 or 4, eliminating the possibility of seeing the Brooklyn Nets emerge from the play-in tournament, and setting up a more agreeable first-round matchup?

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It’s remarkable that this team is even pondering these options.

Credit Udoka for demanding more from his players and getting them to embrace his desires on both ends of the court. Credit Brad Stevens for decluttering the roster and delivering a nine-man core that Udoka can confidently lean on without slippage on the defensive end.

 

None of this would have happened if Tatum didn’t produce his annual second-half explosion, and so much of Boston’s success hinges on his emergence as possibly a top-five player in the NBA. Jaylen Brown has made his own leap recently, Marcus Smart expertly quarterbacks the team on both ends, Al Horford has turned back the clocks, and Robert Williams might be the X-factor in any deep playoff run.

None of this seemed possible 90 days ago. The Celtics are a completely different team. It’s easy to get blinded by what’s to come but it’s worth taking a minute out of crunching the seeding probabilities to appreciate just how improbable the numbers would have been to suggest the Celtics would even get to this point.