Four years ago, the Celtics hosted a Game 7 at TD Garden. It was Jayson Tatum’s first taste of playoff action and just two years into Jaylen Brown’s career. The Celtics were expecting to play deep into the playoffs, except they thought Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward would be their headliners.
But injuries derailed the two high-priced All-Stars and propelled Tatum and Brown to the foreground probably a little before they were ready. They went just 14-of-35 from the field, as the Celtics clunked their way to an 8-point loss. Boston couldn’t close out LeBron James, despite narrowly leading at halftime.
It is the antithesis of how Tatum and Brown fared Sunday in the Celtics’ dominant 109-89 win over the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Coming off a 46-point bonanza in Game 6, Tatum kept the Celtics competitive when they couldn’t hit shots and later set up his teammates to succeed — like all NBA superstars. Brown chipped in with 19 points, clearing the way for Grant Williams’ herculean 27-point effort and Payton Pritchard’s 14 off the bench. Marcus Smart was an absolute pest.
The Celtics have their championship nucleus, and they’ve built it from the ground up. Seeing them blossom now was worth the fits and starts along the way.
Danny Ainge didn’t intend for Tatum to take on a leading role before he could legally drink. But Irving’s injuries and malevolence scuffed up the plan. As it turns out, it was for the better.
The Celtics went through growing pains. They imploded against the Heat inside of the NBA Bubble and ended their series with a much-publicized locker room shouting match. Last year, they underachieved dramatically, and didn’t even seem to care when Irving humiliated them at the Garden and stepped on Lucky on his way out.
Their atrocious performance forced Brad Stevens upstairs and Ainge out of the organization. At that point, the Celtics could’ve gone either way. Some early season clunkers prolonged their frustrating stint in NBA purgatory.
Then they turned it around. The Celtics have been the best team in basketball since Jan. 1 and they didn’t have to overhaul their roster. There were rumors about Bradley Beal and Damien Lillard; whispers that Tatum was too concerned with individual achievement.
All they needed was a new coach. Ime Udoka has unlocked Tatum, who could go down as one of the greatest players in franchise history, and undoubtedly one of their greatest draft picks. Ainge targeted Tatum, moving down to No. 3 overall in the 2017 draft and bypassing the consensus No. 1, Markelle Fultz.
A year earlier, Ainge grabbed Brown at No. 7, despite his shooting struggles. Brown was a 29.4 percent 3-point shooter at Cal.
He shot 35.8 percent from beyond the arc this season. Brown got better, which is exactly how it’s supposed to work.
In an era of super teams, the Celtics are a product of the draft. Smart was a top-10 pick, too, and brings every tenacious intangible to the table.
Williams and Pritchard, their two best role players, were late-first round choices. The 2008 Celtics were built on the back of trades and free agency.
The 2022 Celtics came from player development.
The first path was more immediate, but this one is far more sustainable.