Celtics

Celtics blossoming into a real championship contender is a dream come true

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Jayson Tatum has shaken off a shooting slump to become a reliable scorer and decision-maker.


Presumably you remember this, even if it now feels like it occurred during a different time and place, if not a different season entirely.

On Thursday, Jan. 6 in New York, the Celtics bricked away a 25-point lead and lost to the Knicks, 108-105, on an answered-prayer banked 3-pointer by R.J. Barrett at the buzzer. Evan Fournier, mostly impactless during his partial 2020-21 season with Boston, played like he’d stolen Klay Thompson’s powers, scoring 41 points. They fell to 18-21 and 10th place in the Eastern Conference, behind the likes of the Knicks and Wizards.

It felt like a low point. But no one could say definitively that it was the low point. There were too many bottom-scraping candidates for Worse Loss of the Season already to consider.

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A 19-point blown lead against the Bucks on Christmas Day.

A 4-for-42 tutorial-in-masonry from 3-point territory against the Clippers.

A torching by the Jaylen Nowell/Greg Monroe dynamic duo in a 5-point loss to the Timberwolves.

The Celtics, whose habits got worse the tighter the game became, offered no indication that there wouldn’t be more debacles to come.

But then, the most improbable twist happened, one that might be unprecedented in the recent history of Boston sports. The Celtics went from inventing the worst possible ways to lose to becoming the best-case version of themselves, individually and as a team.

After the Knicks loss, they won three in a row and 5 of 6 … which turned into 7 of 11 … and then 16 of 20 after a nine-game winning streak through Feb. 15 that was punctuated with a 48-point win over the Sixers. Since that win, they’ve gone 11-3, including the four-game winning streak they took into Wednesday’s matchup with the Jazz.

So since that annoying loss to the Knicks, the Celtics have gone 27-7, improving to 45-28 overall and rocketing from 10th place to fourth place in the East, but percentage points out of second and just 2½ games back of the conference-leading Heat.

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If we’d told you, the quintessential Celtics fan that you are (yes?), in mid-January that the Celtics would be in this position just two months later, you would have scoffed and said who were we kidding with this best-case-scenario daydreaming. But this is no daydream, nor is it a mirage. Virtually everything that a tuned-in Celtics fan would have wanted to happen in January has happened. A not-so short list, starting with the most important development:

Jayson Tatum has unlocked all of his potential. He snapped out of his early-season shooting slump and made a genuine effort to become a quicker decision-maker that has led to enhanced mutual trust between him and his teammates. He attacks the hoop with grace, strength (he doesn’t get enough credit for how hard he’s worked in the weight-room), and ambidextrous Plastic Man moves around the hoop. Playing team ball has made him even more dangerous, and in tandem with Brown (who has been playing very well but is still prone to bouts of hero ball), they have backed up all of their words about wanting to play together, win together, and bring out the best in each other. Tatum is a superstar in all the right ways now, and it makes just about anything seem possible.

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But that’s hardly all that has gone right. The rest of the not-so-short list: Marcus Smart is embracing the point guard role — he remains wildly underrated as a passer, but has cut down on the wild shots … Robert Williams III has blossomed into a game-changing defender and an increasingly clever offensive player … Grant Williams has become just the kind of versatile, two-way forward that they’ve lacked off the bench since James Posey departed … Payton Pritchard is playing like a better ballhandling version of Eddie House … Al Horford found a time machine that took him back to 2017 … Derrick White has brought that Spurs connectivity to the offense … and the defense takes pride in its ferocity and relentlessness.

President of basketball operations Brad Stevens made sure the pieces fit. They didn’t always: Dennis Schröder, Enes Kanter Freedom, Romeo Langford, Jabari Parker, and Juancho Hernangómez played a combined 2,780 minutes this season. But they do now. The roles are defined, and first-year head coach Ime Udoka deserves serious coach of the year consideration for convincing the players, to a man, to play the defensive-minded, basketball-sharing style he preferred, which happens to be a joy to watch.

Actually, that is a pretty long list, isn’t it?

The only team I can think of across any sport that pulled a U-Turn like this in-season is the 2019 St. Louis Blues. They were a league-worst 15-19-4 at one point in January. In June, they beat the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final.

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I take pretty much anything that falls within parameters of the Nate Silver brand with a whole shaker of salt these days, but it bears noting that fivethirtyeight.com has the Celtics as the favorite to win the NBA title.

I’m not going that far, not yet. There will be no patsies in the Eastern Conference playoffs, and besides, I prefer enjoying good things happening in the moment rather than jumping ahead to what they may or may not be able to do in the future.

But I do know this. A couple of months ago, the Celtics kept coming up with maddening ways to lose. Now all they do is win us over, again and again, a little more with each satisfying victory.

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