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Plenty has been said and written about Golden State’s dramatic fall-and-rise from perennial NBA finalist to the lottery and back again. Sure, it’s a compelling story, with several star players – Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant – suffering significant injuries and the organization as a whole having to re-align its vision and objectives.
The Warriors’ turnaround – from their last Finals game in 2019 to Game 1 on Thursday (9 p.m. ET, ABC) – will have taken 1,085 days (11 shy of three years) to complete. The Boston Celtics, meanwhile, will have had 4,368 days between Finals appearances, stretching back to their Game 7 loss to the Lakers in 2010.
Part of what gets Golden State so much attention is the team still having the same core – Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, coach Steve Kerr – from their first title in 2015. The Celtics’ return to glory required more resourcefulness, creativity, gambles and unwitting accomplices in assembling a roster capable of challenging again at the league’s highest level.
It has taken 12 years, three coaches, two different chief basketball executives, the turnover of player personnel two or three times – and yet, with just one year missing the playoffs – for Boston to position itself four victories away from its 18th NBA title.
Below is a timeline of the Celtics’ long road back, a marathon compared to the Warriors’ sprint:
June 9, 2012: Celtics lose East finals to Miami
Boston’s last Finals appearances came two years earlier, a Game 7 loss against the Los Angeles Lakers that still haunts Celtics fans. At the time, the core of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and coach Doc Rivers still looked to have championships in them. But getting bumped in the East semifinals by Miami in five games the next season, then ousted in seven by that LeBron James super-team in 2012 sent a more sobering message.
Beloved as they were, this felt like the end of the line for that group. Pierce was 34, Garnett 36, Allen coming up 37. It didn’t help a few weeks later when Allen extracted a two-year, $12 million offer from Boston, only to turn it down anyway to sign with the Heat.
June 25, 2013: Doc Rivers takes over the Clippers
Rivers, after nine seasons, a 416-305 record and the 2008 championship, had overseen building or rebuilding situations in Orlando and Boston. He wasn’t so sure he was ready to do it again. Then boss Danny Ainge helped him make up his mind, arranging for a 2015 first-round draft pick as compensation from the Clippers, who signed Rivers to a three-year, $21 million deal to coach and act as GM.
To replace Rivers, Ainge hired Brad Stevens, a 36-year-old who had led pipsqueak Butler to consecutive national collegiate championship games.
July 2, 2013: Ainge pulls trigger on Pierce-Garnett trade
With Rivers gone, the deck was clear for Ainge’s blockbuster. He sent Pierce and Garnett with teammate Jason Terry to Brooklyn, acquiring a bundle of role players as well as draft picks in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. Keep an eye on the picks in ’16 and ’17 – those would be used for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, respectively, All-Star pillars of this current Celtics squad.
Ainge had seen the decline of the Celtics when Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and a few others were kept around even as their skills and/or health eroded. He was driven not to let sentimentality deter him.
June 26, 2014: Draft Marcus Smart at No. 6 overall
After posting a 25-57 record, the third-worst in franchise history, Boston got its highest draft spot since the pre-Big Three days.
Whatever second-guessing there was early on, over the likes of Julius Randle, Zach LaVine or Clint Capela, it largely has died down. Smart weathered a succession of Celtics point guards playing in front of him to become the driving force of this 2022 squad, while becoming the first pure guard to be named Defensive Player of the Year since Hall of Famer Gary Payton in 1996.
Said Smart, somewhere along his journey: “You have to go through a storm before you see a rainbow and a pot of gold at the end.”
July 8, 2016: Al Horford signs multi-year deal
Horford was a four-time All-Star when he joined Boston and the results he and the Celtics got together were splendid: A 157-89 record in three seasons with two trips to the Eastern Conference finals and one to the East semifinals. But he opted out of the final year of his deal to hit free agency, and boy did he hit it: A four-year package from Philadelphia worth up to $109 million. Boston wasn’t competitive at all next to that.
The only problem was, Horford didn’t fit with the Sixers as well as many expected. He and center Joel Embiid got in each other’s way on the floor, and the newcomer was making too much money to serve as a full-time backup. One year in, Philadelphia traded Horford in a package to Oklahoma City, where he stayed until being reunited with Boston in 2022.
June 19, 2017: Celtics trade No. 1 pick, select Jayson Tatum
Which is to say, they traded the opportunity to draft Markelle Fultz and still managed to land Duke freshman Tatum at No. 3. Fultz’s physical and mental challenges rendered him such a disappointment for the Sixers that he got traded after playing only 33 games in 1.5 seasons. After one encouraging season in Orlando, Fultz has been out again, making only 26 appearances the past two years.
Tatum is a three-time All-Star, a two-time All-NBA pick, the newly minted MVP of the East finals, the No. 1 focus on Golden State’s defensive game plan for these Finals and at 24, one of the bright, young faces of the NBA over what’s left of this decade. Yeah, kind of a pivotal move.
July 14, 2017: Celtics sign Gordon Hayward
False alarm here. Hayward’s signing, a big, big deal at the time, never amounted to much in the grand scheme. He badly injured his ankle in the first quarter of his first game in 2017-18, and didn’t really regain his pre-injury form until 2019-20. By that time, Brown and Tatum had established themselves as the Celtics’ future on the wings. This seems in hindsight like a Steven-serving move that, in its own little arc, might have impacted the young coach’s subsequent career path.
Aug. 30, 2017: Goodbye Isaiah, hello Kyrie
We’re breaking these comings and going by Celtics backcourt stars into three separate dates for clarity. Back in February 2015, Ainge brought in undersized gunner Isaiah Thomas in a three-team deal with Phoenix and Detroit. Thomas averaged 24.7 points in two seasons, was an East All-Star both in 2016 and 2017 and even finished fifth in 2017’s MVP balloting.
But his ceiling hardly screamed “NBA Finals!” so that August, he was shipped to Cleveland in a bundle for unhappy All-Star Kyrie Irving.
July 6, 2019: Goodbye Kyrie, hello Kemba
The second of three guard exchange deals came when Boston traded Terry Rozier essentially for Kemba Walker. Irving had been allowed/encouraged to leave via free agency to Brooklyn, with his two Celtics seasons ending up good enough for him but regrettable for the team. For instance, Irving got hurt in March of his first Boston season, didn’t play again and didn’t even show up to support the team from the bench in its seven-game elimination by Cleveland.
Walker was an All-Star his first season with the Celtics but played in the showcase game despite an injury. He wound up missing 45 of his 144 possible games for Boston before being traded for a familiar face.
June 2, 2021: Ainge resigns, Stevens moves upstairs
Ainge, now with the Utah Jazz, remains the only person in Celtics history to win championships both as a player and as a GM. In his 18 seasons steering the franchise, Boston made 15 playoff appearances, seven conference finals trips and two NBA Finals. He’s the one who brought together the title team in the summer of 2007, getting both Garnett and Allen to join Pierce for an instant championship. It was Boston’s first in 22 years and the 17th in franchise history.
Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck said this week in a radio interview: “[Ainge] came and suddenly resigned, whatever it was, [in February or March 2021]. He came to me and said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ So that was unexpected, unwanted.”
Stevens got promoted to replace Ainge after eight seasons as coach that produced a 354-282 record, seven consecutive playoff berths and three trips to the East finals. His role change came amid reports that he had lost effectiveness in the locker room, with suggestions he was not tough enough on certain players. It’s no secret, either, that job security for front-office bosses is a lot better than it is for coaches.
“I know we couldn’t be in better hands than with Brad guiding the team going forward,” Ainge said on his way out the door.
Said Grousbeck at the time: “Brad and I spoke this morning and committed to one another that we’re going to win banner 18 or die trying.”
June 18, 2021: Goodbye Kemba, welcome back Big Al
Stevens rolled up his sleeves and, a couple of weeks later, traded Walker and two draft picks to OKC for Horford and pieces. From drydocked with an uncertain future at age 35, the skilled, smart 6-foot-9 big man was getting new life.
On Sunday, Horford shed his status as the active NBA player appearing in the most playoff games without reaching the Finals. It took him 141 postseason games across his 15 seasons to finally make it to the championship round. Horford turns 36 Friday.
“Nobody deserves it more than this guy on my right here,” Brown said, seated next to Horford on the post-Game 7 podium. “I’m proud to be able to share this moment with a veteran, a mentor, a brother.”
June 28, 2021: Udoka named new Celtics coach
Twenty-six days after the job officially opened up, Ime Udoka was hired as the 18th head coach in Celtics history. Like Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and others, Udoka is said to be from Gregg Popovich’s coaching “tree” in San Antonio, but his background is more varied than that.
The 6-foot-6 Udoka, 44, spent seven years as an NBA role player with five franchises and also logged time professionally in the D League (now G League) and with teams in France and Spain. He broke into coaching with the Spurs and spent seven years there, before also serving as an assistant with Philadelphia and Brooklyn.
Udoka actually heard public rumblings that he could be fired as the Celtics ran their record to 16-19 in late December, with chatter that maybe Tatum and Brown overlapped and needed to be split up via a trade. But the coach’s emphasis on a defense-first approach began to pay off in January, with a 35-12 finish and rise to the top of NBA defensive rankings to show for it.
The Celtics players have talked glowingly of Udoka’s impact, owing both to his coaching and his playing perspectives.
“You’ve got a coach who embodies everything that we embody,” Smart said, “and he kind of puts it on you to let you know that, ‘Hey, I’m not taking no slack, and if you don’t like it, then you can get up out of here,’ and that’s the type of group we are. We don’t want to be babied. We’re grown men, we’re professionals and we want to be treated like that.”
Feb. 10, 2022: Derrick White arrives in 4-for-1 deal
By the trade deadline, Boston acquired White, also trained in San Antonio’s system, for Romeo Langford, Josh Richardson, a 2022 first-round pick and a 2028 first-round pick. It got a steady, two-way guard who stepped in for Smart when ankle problems limited him against Miami.
White, by his own admission, was slow to fit in after the midseason trade. But as he got more comfortable, his involvement and production perked up with it, from 5.3 ppg in the first round to 8.0 against Milwaukee to 10.0 against the Heat. Now he figures to be a big factor against Golden State’s multi-headed guard attack.
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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