Boston Celtics first year head coach Ime Udoka has guided the team to the NBA Finals after a rocky start to the season. He challenged his star players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown publicly in the media, changed the team’s defensive scheme, and instilled a new level of accountability.
It showed in game one of the NBA Finals on Thursday night as the Celtics overcame a 15-point deficit in the third quarter, to win 120-108. Their trademark defense was on display in the deciding fourth quarter when the Celtics outscored the Warriors 40-16.
On Jan. 6 the Celtics were 18-21 and in 11th place in the East, and many were wondering if Udoka was in over his head.
“I had my own time frame in terms of changing habits and building a foundation,” Udoka explains. “It wasn’t the time to kick a chair or tip over tables a month or two into the season.”
Since Jan. 6, the Celtics went 33-10 to end the season. They finished with the No. 1 aNET rating in the NBA behind the league’s No. 1 defense and 10th-ranked offense.
The Celtics defeated the Brooklyn Nets, defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and the East’s No. 1 seed Miami Heat to advance to the NBA Finals. This was something Udoka believed his team could do all along, but they needed to really commit to doing all the things necessary to give themselves a shot at a championship.
It was Udoka’s ability to communicate directly to players and challenge them that intrigued former coach Brad Stevens, who ascended to the front office last offseason. The Celtics had advanced on the floor as far as they were going to go with Stevens as coach. Something different was needed.
“Sometimes we misconstrue and confuse directness for being harsh,” says Stevens. “But the better word is transparent. Just call it like it is. That’s what Ime does.”
Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart knows this first-hand. Earlier in the season he called out Tatum and Brown for not getting their teammates involved enough. Udoka understood what Smart was saying and said the same himself directly to Tatum and Brown. But this time Smart was wrong and Udoka let him know it.
“It was nothing I hadn’t said behind closed doors,” Udoka explains now. “But in this case, it was a player saying it publicly. And what Marcus was saying in that particular game was totally invalid. Jayson and Jaylen were drawing a lot of doubles and were making the correct pass each time — including to Marcus — who couldn’t make a shot that night.”
“Ime told me, ‘It’s out, don’t run from it,'” Smart says. “‘Those are your brothers and they feel hurt.'”
Udoka was a journeyman grinder as a player. It was always about the work for him. As a player he always understood the intricacies of the game and would explain what coaches wanted his teammates to do.
When he finished his playing career he studied under San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich as an assistant. He took that same grinder mindset as a player and applied it to the craft of coaching. Pop taught him how to hold superstars accountable with the way he handled Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, and Tony Parker.
He took those lessons with him to the Philadelphia 76ers, where he worked under Brett Brown and helped hold Joel Embiid accountable. He did the same last season with the Brooklyn Nets and Kevin Durant.
Everything he learned in his 12 years as a player and nine years as an assistant coach has prepared him for this moment. He and the Celtics will face their toughest challenge in these NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors.