BOSTON (AP) – The Boston Celtics’ transformation from a team outside of the Eastern Conference’s top division to one that is just four wins away from the team’s 18th championship began when Ime Udoka took a shot at him. The moment he grabbed the microphone at the introductory press conference in June.
Accompanied by Celtics co-owner and new president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, the first-time coach was asked what he would like to label his new team. imprint.
With a smile on his face, Udoka didn’t hesitate to point out a shortcoming of his former and new boss.
“We want to have a well-rounded team. I looked at the overall numbers and I’m sorry to mention this Brad, but last year was 27th in assists — we want to have more team basketball there,” Uganda said. Doka said.
A year later, his promise to build a culture of shared ball, accountability and tough defense is no longer just a wish.
It’s the foundation of a team returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010, and makes Udoka on the verge of becoming the 10th coach to win a championship in his first season.
Tyronn Lue (2016 Cleveland Cavaliers) was on the roster while Hall of Famer Bill Russell just missed out, winning No. 1 in Boston in his second season as player-coach in 1968 back-to-back champions.
Like Udoka, who is of Nigerian descent, they’re all black coaches who take their place in a league where coaches of color often have to wait on the sidelines for opportunities.
This is even more pronounced in a city with a complex racial history like Boston, where Udoka could also join Russell, Doc Rivers (2008) and KC Jones (1984, 1986) as black coaches to raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
After typical challenges like injuries were compounded by an unexpected absence from COVID-19, it took a while for Udoka’s first team to embrace. After a blowout loss to the New York Knicks on Jan. 6, the team was nowhere near the playoffs, and the Celtics were 11th in the Eastern Conference with an 18-21 record.
But after finishing the regular season 33-10 and beating the Brooklyn Nets, defending champion Milwaukee Bucks and top-seeded Miami Heat in the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Celtics are clearly a team A team built in the image of Udoka and under his leadership.
“He taught us something we could learn, and we taught him something,” point guard Marcus Smart said. “We know he’s his first and it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be tough. That’s it, that’s our team, that’s the mentality we’ve learned from him. … When you have With a coach like that, it’s hard not to follow.”
Udoka has benefited greatly from hearing from core players such as Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Smart and even veteran Al Horford, who have expressed early expressions of being forced to and when necessary. The desire to summon.
It happens on multiple occasions. After Boston’s Nov. 1 home loss to Chicago, Boston gave up a 19-point lead — one of several for the Celtics in the first half of the season — and Smart was the team’s tenure. The longest player, he called out Tatum and Brown who were sometimes reluctant to pass the ball.
Those comments sparked a players-only meeting shortly after that loss, but Udoka also backed Smart’s comments days later.
That led to uncomfortable conversations in the locker room, but Udoka said it was also one of the moments that ultimately drove their shift.
“I challenged their mental toughness. Some people like it, some people don’t,” he said. “The team has reacted the same way they have all year. We really said let’s stop screwing up and give up those leads because we’ve lost two or three games of a 19-point lead and lost by Christmas. Cleveland, Milwaukee and Chicago, then New York. … I’m sick of it. The team is sick of it.”
Since then, player-only meetings have not been reserved just for low scores, but have been pushed by the coaching staff to create a more open dialogue.
Udoka also benefited from a first-time executive at Stevens who made the necessary roster changes while resisting the others.
Notably, he changed the roster at the trade deadline, trading seven players including guard Dennis Schroder, Josh Richardson and big man Enes Free, as well as a 2022 first-rounder draft rights and acquired Celtics guard Derrick White and center Daniel Theis.
This underscores the statement Udoka made when he accepted the job. The point guard duties will be in the hands of Smart, who has patiently waited for his chance to become the eventual starter since his rookie season in 2014-15. Along the way, the Celtics brought in All-Stars like Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker. As it turns out, Smart is the point guard they’ve always needed.
Smart was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year this season, a decision confirmed.
As the Celtics prepare to return to the Finals, Udoka insists the team hasn’t reached its peak yet.
Moments before he addressed the team in the locker room after the division title, he noticed the players were laughing, all clutching water bottles.
“What is that?” he asked. “We already did the water bottle thing earlier this year.”
Regardless, the team poured water on him, refusing to let their coaches avoid enjoying the moment, even for a second.
Udoka stood there, wet and with the brightest smile on his face, and he quickly refocused the team on the unfinished task.
“First of all, we’re not going to hang the banner of the Eastern Conference champions in this organization,” Udoka said. “So there’s no need for an aquatic celebration. We have bigger plans.”
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