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Ime Udoka proved the perfect hire for the Boston Celtics

Patient. Biting. Experienced. Prepared. Ime Udoka faced a tall task in his first year with the Celtics and couldn’t have fared better.

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2022 NBA Finals - Golden State Warriors v Boston Celtics Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

When Danny Ainge stepped down and Brad Stevens pivoted upstairs last spring, the Celtics as an organization appeared in decline. Ainge, an institution who couldn’t make a bad move steering the franchise for nearly two decades, left suddenly in the wake of several rough drafts, questionable signings, and Kemba Walker’s unfortunate knee injury.

Stevens moving to GM was unprecedented after emerging among the most highly-regarded coaches in basketball at only 44 years old, before seeing his impact slowly diminish in 2021. Given his lack of experience, many assumed his presidency to be a stop-gap gimmick until his next coaching opportunity. Leaving the role he previously thrived in raised leadership questions on the team. Would the rudderless Celtics see more players walk?

Wyc Grousbeck denied the assumptions at the time. Though the sequence of events through which Ainge decided to retire around the trade deadline, not announcing or celebrating it, as Grousbeck approached his head coach about taking a job he never opened to anyone else with experience remains dubious.

In the end, it worked.

Stevens placed ego aside and embarked on a coaching search to find someone similar to himself but with distinct differences. He found one in a former NBA role player who traveled around the world, tore both knees after coming up through tough Portland gym runs across the country from Stevens’ native Indiana. Erik Spoelstra would call the new Celtics’ head coach’s ascension one decade overdue.

When Grousbeck, Stevens, and Steph Pagliuca reconvened on June 28, 2021, they marked a more jubilant occasion. “A great day to be a Celtic,” Grousbeck declared to a room filled with family, friends, and alumni. Ime Udoka would bring many of his own, hiring Spurs assistant Will Hardy, longtime NBA veteran Damon Stoudamire, 2021 champion Ben Sullivan and Portland native and Warriors assistant Aaron Miles, among others. The culture changed instantly, with one of Udoka’s first statements to a fan base that only vaguely knew him, at best, coming in the form of a playful jab at his predecessor.

“We want to have a well-rounded team,” Udoka said. “Looked at the numbers overall, sorry to mention this, Brad, but 27th in the assists last year, we want to have more team basketball there.”

The line is as overplayed as any hit song, but showed how this awkward transition would work. Stevens embraced his new role outside the sidelines, signing autographs before games with his phone never far, becoming an available resource who wouldn’t intrude, without worries about what leaving coaching meant for his legacy. His hands-on experience learning the team’s shortcomings would help prepare Udoka to address them with his own style and experience, while Stevens constructed a roster to better fit his needs.

It couldn’t have started worse.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted the Celtics’ status early in the season as the league leader in team meetings. Udoka’s mission statement in taking over the job — making Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown better playmakers — got off to a rocky start as Marcus Smart pitched more of a role in the team’s late-game facilitating. A 24-point shift in a fourth quarter meltdown against Chicago at home prompted Smart to call out his teammates in a now-infamous moment. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowkski reported a dinner that followed in Orlando, ominously classifying it as, “emotional at times. Not a terribly productive meeting. Maybe not even beneficial.”

The dinners Udoka envisioned building bridges didn’t go as planned. Meanwhile, the new head coach’s switching scheme baffled onlookers as Josh Richardson, Dennis Schröder and more noted the difficulty the team had transitioning to it. They routinely miscommunicated. Tatum entered a slump on the offensive end, as did Smart and Al Horford, before Brown’s hamstring plagued him early on. Boston became a fourth quarter disaster, spiraling in the second half to end November in San Antonio.

“Some things that we were asking them to do early were probably not natural for all of them, so we knew it was going to take some time,” Udoka said.

The defense slowly improved, the offense grew reliant on Schröder and Christmas arrived with a slew of bad losses. A fourth quarter collapse in Milwaukee, an all-out meltdown against the Wolves who courted a G-League lineup, a dramatic last-second loss to the Spurs at home before rock bottom hit with a 25-point travesty in Madison Square Garden.

Udoka, who preached patience and that habits won’t changing overnight, shot to the podium faster than he had all season. In a controversial moment at the time that he’d later refer back to glowingly as a turning point, he unloaded on the team.

“Repetitive result, this happening,” he said. “Either we’re going to make some adjustments and get tired of it or it’s going to keep happening ... we need some leadership, somebody that can calm us down and not get rattled when everything starts to go a little south and I think it snowballs between our guys, or do I have to stop all our momentum and pace and call a play? … (it’s) some kind of lack of mental toughness there, where something goes a little bad and we all start to drop our head, or everybody adds to it instead of stepping up.”

At 18-21, blame started shifting toward the rookie head coach who some pointed out had more to say about the team than changes to fix it. The Schröder and Marcus Smart combinations to close games baffled many, but even without wins to show for and Brown and Tatum’s fit together coming into question, little signs showed Udoka’s approach yielding results. Tatum’s passing flashed, for one. The starting lineup, sparsely available as COVID and injuries again ravaged the team, posted dominant defensive numbers as Robert Williams III emerged as a disciplined ceiling raiser for any lineup he was in.

Off the court, numerous players found their voice as leaders, particularly Brown and Grant Williams, who Udoka seemed to realize the group could collectively rally around beating up on for his big mouth. Udoka’s April Fool’s joke involved a fight breaking out between himself and Williams, and everyone believed it. Smart found a sweet spot as a leader and point guard, Udoka assigning Stoudamire to mentor him.

The Athletic’s Jason Quick documented how Udoka found his bite around this time and stopped treading carefully around his stars. He challenged players to become more available, which Williams III took personally. His emphasis on Brown and Tatum learning to play together yielded more passing between the two. More of his predictions would lead the team’s previously stagnant offense into the top-10 came true as blowout wins piled up into February. A group of talented players bought into his defensive-first mindset, Udoka tweaked and tightened his rotation and soon saw two-way results built around his motto.

“It’s a pretty simple formula we talk about,” Udoka said. “Play defense at an elite level, share the ball, be unselfish on offense.”

Udoka proved a joy for a rookie reporter too, the head coach delivering the brunt of the insight, quippy quotes and storylines throughout my first full season covering the Celtics. He’d address scheme, speak bluntly and critique his players, with the caveat that he’d already delivered it to them face-to-face. He outlined his goals and emphasizes early and those themes carried through the year. One-on-one and team sessions with his players in the film room became his vehicle for growth and onus on collective accountability. Dreams of becoming a team that didn’t complain to officials died early.

His connection to Gregg Popovich, the dynastic Spurs, numerous NBA teams and two of Boston’s foremost rivals allowed him to give insight on nearly any story around the league. He’d recall Kevin Durant’s foot on the three-point line, Ray Allen’s iconic Finals three and lived the Spurs style Stevens idolized in his rise through the ranks. Who else could’ve boasted experienced coaching his new team’s three stars with Team USA?

Though Udoka made an effort to distance himself from Popovich, to not do what he saw past assistants of his mentor do by bothering him in-season, while also highlighting his unique path. He called on his experience mentoring Kawhi Leonard while coaching Tatum, trying to develop his edge as much as his game, while balancing that against not trying to totally change his star and his unique scoring skill. For role players like Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith, he could relay his own time stuck on the end of the bench.

When Derrick White arrived at the deadline, Udoka had coached him twice, too. Asserting early and often their system needed him to be more physical than Popovich’s, even if White needed to foul more. Udoka flexed his relationships across the basketball world and their benefits. He even weighed in on matters that preceded him in Boston, like the team probably screwing up in letting Max Strus go as he ravaged the Celtics in the East Conference Finals.

Udoka’s quiet confidence could own the room, whether harping on the Celtics for taking too long to get him his first win, entering the first round against the Brooklyn Nets asserting he gave Boston an edge by knowing inner workings of the team before sweeping them. Udoka had embraced the matchup other teams avoided. He followed the team’s devastating Game 5 loss against Milwaukee by looking forward to winning Game 6 and getting back to Boston for a seventh. He started Finals week by calling experience in the series overrated in general.

While Udoka didn’t win Coach of the Year, none had a clearer impact on changing the way a team’s players approached the game stylistically. Tatum and Brown shifted their scoring mindset to lead a group that assisted on 70% of its baskets to start the postseason. Udoka’s decision to move Williams III off-ball led to a historic second-half defensive run. The same players that started the season under .500 for the most part brought Boston to the No. 2 seed and eventually The Finals.

“The patience of Job,” Jeff Van Gundy noted in the winter, keyed Udoka’s approach. Nothing could rattle him, constantly noting that 2022 would be a foundational year, implementing new systems, building relationships and trust, while valuing opportunities. “They know,” he said, “The Finals loss will stick with the team forever.” So he told them, “come back better.”

“(Udoka) did a great job,” Stevens said. “He went through pretty much everything you can go through ... that’s a testament to the way he stayed even-keeled ... he found a rhythm in coaching this group ... did a good job in maintaining his competitiveness and also his perspective.”

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