One of Ime Udoka’s first initiatives as head coach involved naming captains. The Celtics hadn’t designated one since Paul Pierce held the title and Rajon Rondo succeeded him for a short stint. Brad Stevens preferred collective leadership and the Celtics went without one through the rest of his coaching tenure.
Udoka decided the Celtics would have two as training camp took shape. It stood to reason the team’s pair of young stars, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, would embrace the status. Instead, Brown nominated Al Horford. Marcus Smart outright refuted the need to have captains, and Tatum agreed. Soon, Udoka dropped the idea.
“That kind of took a back seat when things happened in the preseason,” Udoka said. “Now, I’m more prioritizing us getting back on track, getting guys healthy and getting our lineups together … what I did mention was guys leading in several different ways. Marcus, Al are probably the more vocal guys, Jayson and Jaylen do it with their play more so than speaking. A lot of guys contribute and if they all bring what they bring, I’m more happy with that than having to designate captains.”
That moment signified both an early learning experience for Udoka as a rookie head coach and one of his many prophetic statements that would come true down the road. Leadership by committee became a mantra through the difficult months ahead. Smart called out Brown and Tatum for their fourth quarter play early in the season. Grant Williams took the podium after a difficult loss in San Antonio that dropped the team to 10-10 to share a sense of urgency. They listened to him...sometimes. Horford spoke up when needed, urging the team to look in the mirror after losing to a G-League unit in Minnesota.
Eventually, Brown and Tatum rose to the top with the trust from their teammates and found their voices. All went on display in Boston’s sweep over the Nets.
“That’s something that myself and Jayson have been challenged to do more,” Brown said after Game 3. “Taking the reigns, and it’s something we’ve grown (at). Being a leader. Speaking to different guys separately in different ways. Finding ways to inspire, motivate, influence your teammates and sometimes you’ve got to be creative in those regards. I’ve been a little more vocal, and I’ll look to keep doing that.”
Brown found opportunities in each game. After a string of Bruce Brown baskets and assists early in Game 3, Jaylen Brown and Smart led a timeout discussion midway through the first quarter while Udoka spoke with his assistants to the side before rejoining them.
During halftime at Game 2 when the Celtics trailed by 10 points at halftime, Brown told the Celtics to be who they are and stay the course. He spoke up in Game 1 after noticing the team going quiet in the second half as their 15-point lead slipped away.
“This is the moment where our faith needs to the be the strongest. We gon’ find a way to win this game,” Brown told them. “We gon’ find a way to get our offense going. Stick with it. This ain’t the time to fold to adversity, it’s time to turn it up a notch.”
All three moments eventually helped the Celtics thrive in fourth quarters, an area they struggled with in the regular season. Boston scored on nine of its first 13 possessions to begin the final frame in Game 1, a stark contrast to the late collapses that plagued the team through the regular season.
“I’m one of the longest-tenured Celtics here,” Brown told CelticsBlog after Game 2. “Not oversaturating your voice, but speaking when it’s necessary. Especially in those moments where things might not be going the way we want them to go, all is not lost. Keep faith through the adversity, through the ups-and-downs. Winter always turns to spring.”
Smart stepped up to initiate the comeback by leading a trio of scoring plays, before Brown’s quick thinking to grab an open layup down by three points allowed the now-iconic game-winning sequence on the following possession. Since then, the Celtics won the final quarter of Game 2, 29-17, then went on a 20-12 run midway through the fourth in Game 3 to build a double-digit lead.
The team won and lost in every way imaginable during the year, and they’ve found ways to secure victories in three different kinds of fourth quarters— withholding a late charge and losing a big lead, overcoming a deficit in a rock fight, then winning a tight game on the road. Trust became a theme for this team and a factor in all the outcomes, allowing teammates to make plays, passing out of double teams and defending on a string.
“In the playoffs you’re going to be in some tight games,” Udoka said after Game 3. “That’s beneficial, but more so than that, it’s learning from those early season losses. Tightened up our playbook, relearned the players and what we’re asking of them. All that’s come to fruition with how we’re playing now.”
It’s not all about the fourth. Brown says the attention to little details, including boxing out and closing out hard, throughout the course of games factored into the group’s growth, too. They valued possessions, unlike the Nets, and built possession advantages large enough to overcome a 30% three-point shooting night in Game 3.
Tatum, who had one of his best defensive games ever with six steals in Game 3, continued to defend Durant intensely. He embraced that stopper role, while becoming a passer more than a scorer on offense. The Celtics would’ve easily lost games earlier this season like the first two in this series where he hit 0 shots in the first quarters.
He shot 42.9% through the first three wins, because he averaged 8.0 assists per game. When Udoka was asked whether Tatum’s offensive burden made it more difficult to defend, he brushed off the notion completely. You play both sides of the ball, Udoka said early this season.
“It’s something I’ve gotten better (at) as I’ve gotten older as my body has developed from my first year until now,” Tatum said Saturday. “Lifting more, stronger, but mentally since I came into the league, obviously I’ve gotten better defensively, but especially my first year when Brad was coaching. We had Ky and Gordon and Al, so part of me getting on the floor was playing defense. I’ve always known that, and as I’ve gotten older, my game has progressed just wanting to be as best as I can as a complete player. Playmaking, scoring and playing that side of the ball. Not a lot of people do it, so it’s something to try to separate myself.”
The Celtics also stayed above the fray on the other side of the series. Brown ignored questions about Kyrie Irving’s antics in TD Garden during Game 1. They prepared for the Nets team available on the floor, rather than getting caught up in the lingering possibility of a Ben Simmons return.
Udoka provided his own unique dose of perspective having coached the Nets, while Brown emphasized taking the series play-to-play, quarter-to-quarter, game-to-game. Boston came off exceptionally focused, mature and composed in the series, even largely shaking off Bruce Brown’s comments that set the table for the matchup.
It’s made what appeared to many as an unfavorable matchup just another string of games for the continually rolling Celtics.
“I’m not worried about what KD is thinking,” Brown said after Durant discussed overthinking in Game 3. “I’m worried about what we’re thinking and our job is to make him guess a little bit. Our job is to make it tough, but Kevin Durant is Kevin Durant. We had some shots go in-and-out, fortunately he missed some shots and he’s had a hard time getting it going and we want to keep it that way, because we know what he can do and what he can bring to the table. So we’ve just got to keep executing the game plan.”