BOSTON (CBS) -- Back in the early days of 2022, not many thought the Celtics would be hosting a playoff series. Now they have a chance to host at least two.
Boston capped off an incredible second-half turnaround by winning its 51st game on Sunday, a blowout win over the hibernating Grizzlies to clinch the two-seed in the Eastern Conference. It's fair to say that when the ball was dropping to bring in 2022, very few could have seen the Celtics (sitting at 17-19 on the season) rising from the play-in tournament to the two-seed in the East. Or win 51 games. Or be among the favorites to win it all by summertime.
Yet here we are. Incredible.
Boston will enjoy a week off before welcoming in either the Brooklyn Nets or Cleveland Cavaliers for the first round of the NBA Playoffs. They'll use that time to rest up and get healthy, and we'll use that time to appreciate one of the greatest second-half turnarounds by a team in green.
There were signs that maybe the Celtics could be a little bit better in the second half in early January, which was a trend when Brad Stevens was at the helm. But not even the most ardent green-teamer would assume they'd go on to win 80 percent of their remaining games. But that's exactly what they did, raising the roof of expectations surrounding the team.
With first-year head coach Ime Udoka on the bench, how the Celtics responded to their first-half malaise was very much an unknown entering 2022. But after Udoka called out the team following an embarrassing loss to the Knicks on Jan. 6, when Boston blew a 24-point lead in New York, things really started to turn around. The Celtics were still a sub-.500 team three weeks into January, sitting at 23-24 after back-to-back losses at home. That's when Udoka's crew began an unreal stretch of dominance.
The Celtics won 11 of 12 after those two home defeats, including nine straight. That run stretched to 20 wins in 23 games. After a surprising road loss to the Pacers, Boston again won 11 of 12. The team lost two straight just once more the rest of the way, one of which was a trip to Toronto when four of the team's five starters didn't play.
Boston finished the season going 28-7 overs its final 35 contests. Over that stretch, the Celtics owned the NBA's best offensive, defensive and overall net rating. They downright dominated just about any foe, and when they weren't pummeling teams by 20-plus points, the Celtics were able to gut out the close victories that escaped them over the season's opening months. It was a rare occasion to feel bad about the Celtics when the buzzer hit zero.
Jayson Tatum asserted himself into the MVP conversation with some jaw-dropping scoring nights and equally as impactful defense. Jaylen Brown was more than just a No. 2 option, sharing the role of top dog with Tatum. Both of them showed their ability to share the ball too, getting everyone involved in the offense. The wins piled up as a result.
Marcus Smart was Marcus Smart, and is now the favorite in the clubhouse to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Al Horford was anything but washed up in his return to Boston, once again serving as the glue that holds it all together. And before he got hurt, Robert Williams soared from being a wild card in the starting five to a dominant force on both ends of the floor. Stevens' moves at the trade deadline trimmed a lot of gristle off the roster and established Udoka's rotation going forward. Dennis Schroder and his sluggish pace was jettisoned, and in came Derrick White to provide a near perfect offense-defense balance off the bench. And it cannot be overstated how important the return of Daniel Theis has been, especially since Williams suffered his unfortunate meniscus injury.
As the Celtics racked up the wins, the expectations for the season only rose. Now with the playoffs upon us, anything less than a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals will be seen as a missed opportunity, and another disappointing end for this core group. But even a trip to the Finals -- or day we say, another banner for Boston -- won't be met with much surprise. The Celtics have been that good for that long, and the NBA is that wide open, to warrant such lofty expectations.
The road will not be easy. In earning the two-seed, the Celtics will meet with either the Brooklyn Nets or the Cleveland Cavaliers. A postseason meeting with Kevin Durant and Kryie Irving is hardly a reward for such a great regular season, but the Celtics didn't mess with the basketball gods on the final day of the regular season to avoid Brooklyn. Instead, they embraced the chance to earn the two-seed, and sent a message to the rest of the NBA that they don't fear anyone this postseason.
And given how they have played over the last 11 weeks, the Celtics shouldn't be afraid of anyone. They're not running from any opponent, and will embrace -- and likely conquer -- whatever challenge is ahead.
for more features.