A quick turnaround to Milwaukee, the city where Ime Udoka’s Celtics began their 2-3 comeback against the Bucks two springs ago, left little time or room for discussion about today. This year’s meeting with the Rockets in Boston has taken on more significance after Houston hired Udoka back in April.
It’s been 478 days since Joe Mazzulla replaced Udoka as interim head coach and still, few know quite how to talk about him.
“You look at guys and coaches around the league who don’t get experiences working for multiple head coaches,” Joe Mazzulla said on Thursday. “Now that I can sit here today, I’m grateful that I got to work for him, I’m grateful that I got to see another way to do things, because I was with Brad for three years and that was the only experience I had in the NBA. That was the only experience I had in the NBA. So, if I don’t get that opportunity to work for another coach who’s worked for multiple coaches, who’s been on benches for championships, who’s been in San Antonio, Philly, other stops and I don’t get to see how the league works and looking at it from a different perspective. I’m grateful for that year.”
No former Udoka players spoke after the Celtics lost to the Bucks on Thursday, though Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and others have all previously expressed confusion following the suspension in 2022, their admiration for what he brought to the team on their way to the NBA Finals and their hope he would find a new opportunity elsewhere.
Mazzulla officially had the interim tag removed in February, officially ending Udoka’s time with the Celtics after he violated multiple team policies in a controversy neither side elaborated much on in the time since. It left Udoka as a marginalized figure with an outsized impact in team history, despite his brief tenure.
Brad Stevens chose Udoka in his search for his own replacement, pressed with finding a leader who could provide the team things he could not in his eight seasons as head coach. He brought championship experience, having played for and coached alongside one of the game’s greatest coaches in Gregg Popovich, who oversaw a philosophy Stevens hoped to model. Udoka also had formed relationships throughout the basketball world, coached Brown and Tatum with Team USA, and stressed defense and toughness while having an innate ability to manage stars. The only experience he lacked then was leading a team himself.
“They’re gonna allow me to coach them, push them. They know I’m gonna be on their ass and that’s what they like about me,” Udoka said in his introductory press conference. “They’ve asked me about that. They want to be pushed, they want to be directed toward winning and you expect that from your stars ... you see the physical talent. Now, it’s a chance to help them grow, become better leaders, more vocal and just continue to push them to be great.”
Udoka did all of that during his first season, implementing wrinkles into the team’s defensive system while hiring an elite staff that retained Mazzulla from Stevens’ staff. He called the team out in the media through their worst moments, drilled film internally and stressed that Brown and Tatum become on-ball playmakers. It culminated in one of the great turnarounds in recent NBA history, Boston winning 22-of-25 through March after an 18-21 start that raised doubts about his coaching acumen.
Those concerns disappeared when the team reached the NBA Finals, but one month later at Summer League with years in Boston seemingly ahead of him, Udoka gave his final press conference as Celtics head coach. Later that month, the organization would hire an outside firm to investigate Udoka’s conduct.
It found what ESPN reported as an inappropriate workplace relationship, which led the Celtics to levy an unprecedented year-long suspension. Udoka accepted responsibility and Mazzulla ascended to interim status from the second row after Udoka’s top assistant Will Hardy departed to the Jazz.
“There’s no clear guidelines for any of this,” Wyc Grousbeck said. “This is really conscience and gut feel and being here 20 years. I’m responsible for the decision ... it was not clear what to do, but it was clear that something substantial needed to be done in my view and it was.”
The Celtics returned to the Eastern Conference Finals last season despite Mazzulla taking over within days of training camp and the team reportedly never fully getting over Udoka’s suspension. The dynamic on that roster evidently changed, with less public-facing, collective accountability that Udoka stressed, more inconsistency on the defensive end and a staff of Udoka hires remaining that, by all accounts, rallied through the season to support Mazzulla but mostly disbanded by the summer. Damon Stoudamire’s departure in April proved particularly impactful, as the Celtics soon began their most erratic play of the season.
This season marked a new step for both Mazzulla and Udoka, the former able to form his own staff and methodologies in full. For Udoka, Houston provided the opportunity for redemption following a 2022-23 season he spent out of the league focusing on therapy and his relationship with his son. Using similar relationship-based, defense-first and tough coaching with a younger Rockets team, they enter TD Garden in the West playoff picture at .500 after multiple seasons at the bottom of the conference.
In Boston, Brown and Tatum began the year talking about establishing a defensive identity. The team still switches as often as any in the league, something Udoka’s staff stressed and taught. Kristaps Porziņģis practiced playing away from the ball in recent weeks, a defensive strategy Robert Williams III utilized similarly to make Boston’s 2022 defense one of the best of the past decade. Udoka’s influence is more than a blip on the radar in this team’s continued ascent to a championship.
“Ime is great. Obviously, under the circumstances, we didn’t get to give it another run and it really showed,” Marcus Smart told Andscape last month. “For somebody as a first-year head coach to come in and take the team that he had with Boston, not only to the Finals, but halfway through the season be right at .500 and then take the team to the Finals, that’s not really heard of too often. And we got to give him his credit right there ... we were expecting after a full [season] under [Udoka], we can do this again and we can really get into it. And we just didn’t get that chance. And when you get a taste of something like that, it’s hard not to want it. And then when you don’t get it anymore it’s like, ‘Dang, what happened? What could have happened?”