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How players-only meetings keyed Celtics turnaround

Ime Udoka acknowledged giving the Celtics time to speak amongst themselves each month was a part of his team goal to hold each other accountable.

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NBA: Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON — The Celtics met in the aftermath of their infamous collapse against the Chicago Bulls in November before leaving for a Florida road trip. Ime Udoka had originally planned a team dinner that became a players-only meeting before the coaches arrived. Many of the details remain undisclosed, aside from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski ominously declaring it not terribly productive — maybe not even beneficial.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe soon quipped that Boston must lead the league in players-only meetings, and he wouldn’t be far off. What looked like a crisis moment for the Celtics early became a formula for their success. A winter COVID surge that also initially undermined Boston would lead to productive one-on-one meetings between players and coaches. The Celtics became the meeting team — for good and bad — and it played into Udoka’s priorities of individual leadership, collective accountability among players, and no holds barred honesty. Film sessions, timeouts, and monthly meetings all became places to air everything out.

“One thing I have done this year is had monthly players meetings,” Udoka said at practice on Wednesday. “It’s not always a negative connotation with it. If we’re doing something well, we show them the numbers, where we’re at over the last month or so, and I give them 15 minutes to talk amongst themselves then I’ll walk back in and then, ‘what’d you guys got for me?’ We’ve had quite a few of those and I think it encourages leadership and those guys being communicative. We show them where we’re at, ‘these are the things we can improve on and what’d you guys think? What can we improve on as coaches?’”

The structure reflects Udoka’s timeouts and halftimes which center on the players first, while coaches stand off to the side and discuss their own adjustments. When Brooklyn went on a 12-5 run to start Game 3 with Bruce Brown breaking free in the short roll, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart led a spirited discussion before Udoka entered the huddle.

The team ran a high screen for Al Horford that he broke to the top of the arc, forcing Kevin Durant to hesitate and giving Jayson Tatum room to hit a three. Udoka and the Celtics ranked third in ATO plays this season, scoring 1.16 points per possession, showing his blend of X’s-and-O’s working hand-in-hand with his player management style.

In the NBA bubble, these Celtics had an audible locker room blowup during their Eastern Coference Finals run. It sparked a win in Game 5 before they eventually lost the series in six. This year’s “gatherings” (a word that Al Horford prefers) have become more routine, like the film sessions or pregame shootarounds.

“At the end of the day, I just think we figured out what we needed to do and how we needed to play,” Horford said. “We’re at the point now where we can hold each other accountable. If guys see something, we can call each other out. I’m not going to make a big deal about those things. It is what it is. We’re rolling and if we have to say something, we’re saying it.”

Jaylen Brown described the team needing to find creative ways to embrace their new leadership roles. Robert Williams III continues to emphasize Brown becoming more of a vocal leader, while Tatum’s example on the defensive end in the last series set a tone for the rest of the team.

Forcing the Celtics to gather and put frustrations out there, or emphasizing improvements allowed Udoka to break habits, forge bonds and reinforce adjustments that made the team successful that they maybe didn’t stick to right away.

If Udoka didn’t persist on making Tatum a playmaker, it’s hard to imagine the Celtics winning three games in the first round where he didn’t hit a shot in the first quarter. His passing transcended the Nets’ pressure. Brown, too, embraced a finisher role.

Meetings also allowed Udoka to get back to himself after doubting his own techniques early. As The Athletic documented, Celtics assistant coaches saw Udoka get his edge back in a film session following the team’s disappointing first west coast road trip.

“It was a don’t-hold-back-session on everybody,” Udoka said. “It was everything from getting punked, to transition defense, to terrible offense … we were in there forever.”

Players soon took notice and embraced that accountability. Brown worked overtime in film sessions afterward, fixating on reducing his turnovers and embracing his new role as a playmaker. The team had less time on the court as a group, so Udoka leaned into more personal time with each players. Slowly, all these sessions and results that followed forged into trust.

“They’re great. We’re all learning,” Smart told CelticsBlog on Thursday. “We’re all teaching each other, we’re all learning from one another. If somebody sees something that somebody else didn’t see, we rely on each other to critique and make those right decisions. The players-only meeting is so important because it’s one thing to have a coach come in here and show you this and show you that. We all know it’s a difference when you have to be involved and you have to be on your toes because you’ve got to know what’s going on and can actually talk about what’s going on. Actually being involved and participating, rather than just have coach go out there and talk and everybody just sitting and watch.”

Conventional thinking suggests that the players-only meetings don’t help. They’re often too late and signals a group whose coach has lost control. That might’ve been true when they began for the Celtics, but losing forced everyone to put their ego aside.

“It was somewhat forced, based on the COVID situation,” Udoka said. “I think it was beneficial to have a lot of one-on-one sessions with guys. Myself and Jaylen and Jayson, really zeroing with those guys on what we wanted to do. We were forced to do it, because we couldn’t do stuff on-court, so that was beneficial for us.”