Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, team work lead Celtics to 18th NBA championship

BOSTON – Al Horford waited a long time to win an NBA title. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum’s wait seemed like a long time.

For Al Horford, it was 17 seasons. For Brown and Tatum, it was 107 playoff games.

But when it comes to special achievements, the wait is worth it.

The Celtics learned that Monday, defeating Dallas 106-88 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals for the franchise’s first championship since 2008 and 18th overall, breaking a tie with the Los Angeles Lakers for most titles in league history.

“This is going to be a night that I will remember for the rest of my life, from the game, the celebration, these moments,” Tatum said. “Over the last couple years, we had some tough losses at home in the playoffs. We've lost the NBA championship at home in front of our fans. We had a chance to beat Miami in Game 6 a few years ago and lost that one.”

“To have a big win, the biggest win that you could have in front of your home crowd, I felt like that was really important to go out there and do everything in my power to make sure we won this game tonight.”

In the rich, illustrious and magical history of Boston sports – ingrained in New England life, from Providence to Portland, and in the immortal words of James Taylor, from Stockbridge to Boston – the 2023-24 Celtics have found their place alongside the great sports stories in the city’s history.

Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown celebrate after Boston's 106-88 win against the Dallas Mavericks.
Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown celebrate after Boston's 106-88 win against the Dallas Mavericks.

The Celtics overwhelmed opponents, including the Mavericks, with offensive and defensive talent and versatility. They had multiple scorers and a combination of team and one-on-one defense stressed and broke down opponents. They had answers and responses for almost every scenario.

The Celtics had the best regular-season record at 64-18 with the No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense. That translated in the playoffs. The Celtics were 16-3 in the postseason and won 11 of their final 12 games.

“Man, I never forget what (then-Celtics president) Danny Ainge told me in that (2016) meeting,” Horford said. “He said, ‘You can win championships in many places, but there's nothing like winning in Boston. Nothing like winning as a Celtic. And that stuck with me from that meeting.”

This Celtics championship was forged in previous playoff losses, the full potential of a Brown-Tatum partnership, Mazzulla’s coaching and his belief in the trusting his players and the 3-point shot and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens’ roster building.

Celtics thrive with 3-point shot

The Celtics shot 46 3-pointers in Game 3 against Dallas. It was the ninth time they attempted at least 40 3s in the playoffs. The 3 is important staple of Boston’s offense. During the regular season, the Celtics attempted a league-high 42.5 3s per game, made a league-best 16.5 3s per game and were second in 3-point shooting field goal percentage (.388).

“You can't have a philosophy or a way of playing if you don't have a group of guys that are willing to buy into it and be disciplined,” Mazzulla said.

Boston’s eight main rotation players (Tatum, Brown, Horford, Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Kristaps Porzingis, Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser) made at least 10 3s during the playoffs, five made at least 30 3s and four shot at least 38% from that distance.

The Celtics outscored the Mavericks 210-144 on 3s in the Finals.

“I don't know if it's at cut and dry as we need to shoot a lot of 3s,” Tatum said. “But with the group that we have and playing to our strengths, being able to beat guys off the dribble, and the luxury that we have is with our starting five, whether it's KP or Al, everybody can space the floor and shoot. …

“It's just all about making the right reads. We're never like, we need to shoot 40 threes a night. But if we play to our strength and space how we're supposed to, it just finds the right person, and we don't turn down any great shots.

Brown-Tatum lead the way back to a title

Some teams require losses before winning the biggest prize, and the Celtics had tough playoff defeats – four times in the conference finals and once in the NBA Finals since 2018.

“It took being on the other side of this and losing in the Finals and being at literally the lowest point in a basketball career that you could be, to next year, to the following year, thinking that was going to be the time, and come up short again,” Brown said of the 2022 Finals and 2023 playoffs.

“People have said it before. But coming up short and having failures makes this moment that much better. Because you know what it feels like to lose. You know what it feels like to be on the other side of this and be in the locker room and hearing the other team celebrating, hearing them celebrate on your home floor. That was devastating.”

This title had an old-school feel to it. The Celtics’ title is reminiscent of the 1980s Pistons that lost Boston twice in the playoffs before breaking through but losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1988 Finals, and finally winning the title in 1989.

Said Brown, the Finals MVP: “We learned from all of our mistakes. All of our adversity has made us stronger, made us tougher. All season you could see it. We started from the jump. We made all the sacrifices. We played both ends of the ball at a high level. We didn't skip any steps. And this was the result.

“But all of those experiences led to here. All of moments where we came up short, we felt like we let the city down, let ourselves down, all of that compiled is how we get to this moment.”

The Celtics have a complete understanding of what is required to win a championship. Brown, Tatum, Porzingis, White, Holiday and Horford provided offensive options that resulted in two 20-point-a-game scorers with the possibility of a third and even a fourth getting 20 points in the same game. Boston has unselfish players who passed and provided elite defense.

It was a team effort with Brown, the Finals MVP, and Tatum leading the way. Brown averaged 20.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.6 steals and shot 44% from the field, and Tatum averaged 22.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.2 assists and shot 38.85 from the field.

“We've been through a lot,” Brown said. “We've been playing together for seven years now. We've been through a lot, the losses, the expectations. The media have said all different types of things: We can't play together. We are never going to win. We heard it all. But we just blocked it out, and we just kept going. I trusted him. He trusted me. And we did it together.”

Mazzulla connects with his style, philosophy

Mazzulla has unorthodox methods. In video sessions, he splices footage of MMA fights, soccer and animals to make points about process and response. He seeks out head coaches in other sports, such as Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola and New England Patriots’ Jerod Mayo to discuss the job.

Mazzulla arrived at the Celtics’ head coaching job in an unusual circumstance. Boston suspended the-Celtics coach Ime Udoka for the 2022-23 season for violations of team policy and moved Mazzulla into the interim role. At All-Star weekend of that season, Mazzulla had the interim tag removed.

“You need criticism. You need praise. You need expectations,” Mazzulla said. “All those things go into making who you are as a person, making who you are as people, as an organization.”

He has had success based on his process. “It's understanding why,” he explained after winning Game 3. “Why are we down 13? Is it effort? Is it execution? Is it things we can control? And once we answer those questions, we can move on to the next phase of the game.”

Mazzulla is the youngest coach at 35 years to win an NBA title since 1969 when Celtics Hall of Famer Bill Russell, then also 35, did it. Mazzulla is younger than Celtics center Al Horford, a year older than Jrue Holiday and eight and nine years older than Brown and Tatum.

He likes the 3-ball, and if you listen closely, he uncovers his basketball philosophy. “Getting back on defense, playing hard, transition, rebounding, spacing, execution, those things are the most important,” said Mazzulla who is almost always serious during interviews.

He has won over the locker room. “This type of team is Joe Mazzulla ball,” Horford said. “It's defending, being gritty on offense. It's being able to (have) everybody be a threat on the court at the same time.

“And everything that he wanted to do, he was able to accomplish. He always knew when to push the buttons. He's hard. He can be a little whacky sometimes. But that's what we appreciate about him.”

Brad Stevens builds Celtics into champions

Brad Stevens shocked basketball when he left Butler to coach the Celtics, and then he stunned the NBA when he moved from coaching the Celtics to the team’s president of basketball operations. While he didn’t draft Brown and Tatum, he found the right players to put around them, acquiring Kristaps Porzingis, White and Holiday and bringing back Al Horford.

Now, the Celtics are in position to contend for the next several seasons.

Brown is under contract through 2028-29, Holiday signed an extension in April that keeps him a Celtic through at least 2026-27, Porzingis’ contract is up after 2025-26 and Payton Pritchard’s deal is good through 2027-28.

There are contract situations involving Tatum and White that will be addressed but it’s possible and even likely the Celtics reach extensions with both players, including a deal that will make Tatum one of the highest-paid players in the league.

The Celtics already are early favorites to win the title next season.

“We have an opportunity,” Brown said. “We definitely have a window. We take it one day at a time. We definitely have to make sure we stay healthy. But, we'll enjoy the summer, enjoy the moment, and then we get right back to it next year.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What led to Celtics' 18th NBA title?