Boston’s brilliant technocrats micromanaged their way to the NBA title

<span>The <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Celtics;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Celtics</a> celebrate their dominant win over the Mavericks after a 4-1 series victory in the NBA finals. </span><span>Photograph: Charles Krupa/AP</span>

A blizzard of confetti across the parquet floor at TD Garden; the words “Jaylen Brown finals MVP” no longer a punchline used to taunt the Massachusetts basketball faithful but solid, unarguable reality; the Larry O’Brien trophy in the hands of Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck; and Boston confirmed, with their 18th championship, as the most successful franchise in NBA history.

Were these the worst NBA finals – for neutrals, at least – in recent memory though? A 4-1 scoreline certainly suggests so, and the manner of the Mavericks’ capitulation on Monday night – gamely keeping pace for the first 10 minutes of the first quarter before Boston made the title all but secure by half-time – applied a weak punctuation mark to what had been a rousing Dallas effort in Game 4. In the end, Kyrie Irving failed to show up on the court that once sang his name, the Mavericks supporting cast reverted to mediocre type, and the velvet hands and magic buttocks (and dodgy knee, and injured chest) of Luka Dončić simply had nothing left to give against a Boston outfit that was too smooth, too strong, too powerful at both ends of the court. With this 18th title, after 16 Larry O’Brien-less years, the Celtics now move ahead of their historic rivals the Lakers in the NBA’s all-time championship tally.

This was a victory for process, systems, the patient rebuild, the steady climb – the ultimate victory of the collective over the individual, cooperation over glory-seeking, technocracy over virtuosity. Stepping up to the celebration dais for the post-game open mic session, virtually every Celtics player made a point of emphasizing the importance of teamwork, and it felt like more than a mere platitude. Brown said his MVP award also belonged to his “partner-in-crime” Jayson Tatum, and Tatum explained why it was that he and Brown, both of similar size, position, and on-court style, were able to complement each other so effectively despite all the years of critics calling for one of them to be shed in order for Boston to claim a first title since 2008: “We knew we needed each other, we all need each other.” Meanwhile Derrick White, playing the decider with one cracked tooth and another that looked set for a meeting with a pair of dental pliers, had the trophy presentation’s best line: “I would lose all my teeth for a championship.”

Related: Boston Celtics beat Dallas Mavericks in NBA finals to win record 18th title

Sacrifice, mental discipline, the subordination of ego to the common good: the Celtics are above all a group of nice young men, and their passage into history was built on the polite virtues of friendship, godliness, and self-control, representing a victory for good manners over conceit. Even the final margin in this series bore the imprint of the team’s essential courteousness; a real sweep would have been brutal, but a gentleman’s sweep lets palpably inferior opposition down gently. This is a team that has more than earned its right to party, and party it now will – in responsible quantities. (Not White though, he’s all set for a trip to the dentist.)

Boston’s 18th title has also, famously, been a long time coming – the culmination of a rebuild that began in earnest with the 2013 departure of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, heroes of the 2008 championship, and the replacement of former coach Doc Rivers with Brad Stevens. From there, through missteps (the Kyrie interregnum of 2017-19), near misses (the finals loss to Golden State in 2022, the seven-game loss to Miami in the Eastern Conference decider last year), and romances that didn’t quite last the distance (Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward), the Celtics have kept coming, kept building, kept believing that the precious 18th ring would be theirs.

Along the way the key pieces have fallen slowly into place: Brown and Tatum, the jewels in the Celtics’ crown, arrived as first round draft picks in 2016 and 2017, respectively; bustling center Al Horford also touched down in Beantown in 2016; and last summer saw the addition of the final two pieces of the playing puzzle, ageless guard Jrue Holiday and human linguine Kristaps Porzingis. Boston have benefited from good fortune along the way: the top draft picks the years they landed Brown and Tatum were Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, among the NBA’s most notorious recent flops, while Stevens’s move into the general manager’s throne and various other coaching departures created the confluence that made Joe Mazzulla head coach.

Mazzulla, who is only 35 years old, was fourth assistant coach when the Celtics went to the finals in 2022, and he was installed only as interim head coach at the start of the 2022-23 season, but he’s proven to be exactly the level-headed, selfless disciplinarian that this mix of mid-20s tearaways and carting veterans with one last shot at glory have needed to scale the NBA’s ultimate peak. Mazzulla can sometimes seem like a strange character, and he spent much of finals perched on the sideline like an unimpressed dance instructor – hands on hips, the lips pursed, the glare unblinking – but he’s found his voice at the right moments, and clearly his mix of needling and deference has resonated with the players.

And who would bet against them adding to the tally? Tatum and Brown announced their rich potential as a partnership at both ends of the court in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals, when they had to carry the team in the absence of Irving and Hayward and took LeBron’s Cavaliers to seven games. It’s taken six years for that potential to pay out, but now Tatum (26 years of age) and Brown (27) are champions the right side of 30, and they have their first rings around the same time that LeBron (27) and Michael Jordan (28) claimed theirs.

“Transition defense, and play without fouling, and rebounding: the basics, the details, the fundamentals.” This was the message Mazzulla was caught on the court mic giving to his players partway through the finals decider, and the Celtics’ commitment to getting the simple things right could be seen all across the floor on Monday. Defense, as throughout the series, was the backbone of the Celtics’ effort, a flood of Mavericks turnovers early in the game laying the platform for a series of lightning raids in transition.

Brown stuck to Dončić like honey, frustrating him, forcing him into difficult catches, pressing him further and further from the basket and eventually out of the finals altogether. Tatum ran the show with cool authority, spreading the ball into space then roaring forward to take shooting responsibility when needed, a string of stepback threes, nerveless fadeaways, crisp turns and scalding changes of pace making this his most complete game of the finals by far. There was a buzzer-beating three from half-court by Payton Pritchard, a few airballs from an obviously exhausted Luka, and then in the final quarter, as the clock wound down toward the inevitable, Mazzulla called Horford and Porzingis off the court so they could enjoy their own individual ovations. Here was the Celtics’ feelgood narrative made clear, with Porzingis, the Knicks’ nearly man for so many seasons, grabbing a ring and 38-year-old Horford, the NBA’s favorite dad, finally winning a championship at the end of his 186th postseason game.

And yet! Despite their domination, despite their champion worthiness, these Celtics still seem a little bloodless. Technical, precise, and brutally effective, their basketball nevertheless fails to raise a pulse (in this neutral spectator at least). Boston lost just three games over the course of the playoffs, clinching the championship without ever letting things drift even close to anything resembling a clutch. The Celtics planned and micro-managed and mental-mapped their way to glory; this was basketball played well away from the ledge, the outcome assured, the threats expertly defused, the sweaty moments barely even producing a bead of moisture across the collective brow. Even Jayson Tatum’s “We did it!” tribute to Kevin Garnett’s “Anything is possible!” celebration in 2008 seemed somehow a little forced; Tatum will probably go on to win more titles than the single ring Garnett bagged over the course of his career, but it seems unlikely he’ll ever command the silver screen with the shrugging power that Garnett displayed in 2019’s Safdie brothers classic Uncut Gems.

Where, in all of Boston’s harrying and busy work in defense and attack, was the excitement? Where was the sense of stakes so obviously materialized in the famous playoffs moments of recent memory – Giannis’s anxiety at the free throw line in 2021, the zany clink-clink-drop of Kawhi Leonard’s corner three in Game 7 of the 2019 series against the 76ers, the lunging desperation of LeBron’s block in 2016? In recent years the only team that has been more dominant than these Celtics over the course of an entire playoffs is the Kevin Durant-boosted Golden State Warriors, who bounded to the championship in 2017 while conceding just a single game.

This Boston crop, while not quite as luminously talented as Peak Steph’s Golden State, have much of their predecessors’ relentlessness, their churning, machine-like air of inevitability. But the peaks of Curry, Durant, and even LeBron have passed; the NBA’s old generation is finally, seemingly, drifting into history, its work done, the legends assured. The new generation is here, and the technocrats of Boston look set to master its performance model for years to come.