The Celtics have transformed into the league’s most irritating, relentless defensive unit, but not long ago, the only person viewed as an irritant was the man at the helm of the ship – Ime Udoka.
Udoka, in his first season as an NBA head coach, got off to a tumultuous start and drew suspicious eyes from Celtics fans as he continued to use the media to motivate his players.
Multiple times this season, Udoka called out the Celtics for a lack of toughness and effort, most recently after a heartbreaking loss to the Knicks on January 7.
“It’s a lack of mental toughness to fight through those adverse times,” Udoka said, according to MassLive. “It’s across the board. It’s a turnover here, a bad shot here, a missed defensive assignment here, and several missed rebounds tonight.”
Now, as Boston’s chemistry has peaked and the Celtics are eight games over .500, it’s time for Udoka to see some flowers.
His methods, while unusual for a rookie head coach, have earned the right results. It’s clear with the way the Celtics played during their nine-game winning streak – capped off with a 48-point win in Philadelphia – that giving the players tough love and creating a culture of accountability was absolutely correct for this team.
That 48-point win was without Rob Williams and with only one quarter of Marcus Smart. It didn’t matter that the usual unit was without two giant pieces — the bench stepped up and got the job done. Daniel Theis had four blocks in his second debut for Boston and Aaron Nesmith had 18 points in 23 minutes. Accountability is evident from top to bottom.
This sort of “next man up” mentality is consistent in organizations with good coaching and solid front office leadership. It seems every year, the Miami Heat suffer a slew of injuries but keep pushing through.
The Heat’s consistency and organization-wide unity led to numerous breakouts from Gabe Vincent, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, to name a few. The recent stretch of Celtics basketball is reminiscent of Spoelstra-led teams sticking to the game plan and holding everyone accountable.
That team-wide spirit starts with Udoka and President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens, who have been on the same page every step of the way.
“I hired Ime I because I’ve got a great deal of respect for him as a person,” Stevens said on 98.5 The SportsHub in October. “He’s got a great humility about him. He has a real approachability about him. I think that he can be very demanding but also, like he’s a guy that he can yell at you but you get over it really quickly.”
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are the unquestioned leaders of this team, for the first time. Once Kemba Walker was shipped to Oklahoma City, it became fully their team. Before Walker, Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward shared the limelight, but now, it’s all the Jays.
Udoka knew this, and decided the way to create a winner was accountability, defense and a little bully ball.
This win streak is emblematic of everything Udoka preached since day one. The Celtics have held opponents under 90 points nine times, most in the NBA. Boston also has the best net rating in the NBA since January 1 and the Celtics’ 17-7 record is fourth-best in the NBA.
After months of “what’s wrong with this team” and “can Tatum and Brown play together,” the Celtics have found their identity. As is the case with many teams, it just took time.
The Celtics might not win it all and they still have super teams to face, but it’s clear entering the All-Star break that Ime Udoka had the right idea all along. It’s just finally now coming to fruition. Even after a disappointing loss to the Pistons at TD Garden that ended their winning streak, Udoka recognizes what he’s built in Boston heading into All-Star Weekend, saying, “take a rest on your bodies and minds, and think about what we have coming forward. Nine is done. It would’ve been nice to finish it off the right way, but we still got big things coming up.”