Boston (AP) – The Boston Celtics ’move from a team that moved from a seat just outside the top of the Eastern Conference to four wins from the 18th Franchise Championship began when Udok’s name grabbed the mic at his inaugural press conference. conference last June.
Surrounded by Celtics co-owners and new basketball president Brad Stevens, the first-time coach was asked what stamp he hopes to impose on his new team.
With a smile on his face, Udok without hesitation noted the shortcomings of his predecessor and new boss.
“We want the team to be coordinated. I looked at the overall numbers, I’m sorry to mention this Brad, but last year he was 27th in terms of broadcasts – we want there to be more team basketball, “said Udoka.
A year later his promise to build a culture of sword exchange, responsibility and tough defense is no longer just an aspiration.
This is the foundation of a team that has returned to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2010 and has Udoku on the verge of becoming just the 10th coach to win a title in his first season.
Tyrone Liu (Cleveland Cavaliers 2016) is on that list, while Hall of Fame member Bill Russell just missed it, winning the first of two titles in his second season as a coaching player with Boston in 1968.
Like Udoka, who is of Nigerian descent, they are both black coaches who have won their places in a league in which color coaches often had to wait for opportunities on the side.
This is further emphasized in a city like Boston with its complex racial history, where Udoka can also join Russell, Doc Rivers (2008) and K.S. Jones (1984, 1986) as black coaches to lift Larry O’Brien’s trophy.
It took Udoki’s first team some time to take part after typical problems, such as injuries, were complicated by unexpected absences due to COVID-19. This led to the fact that the team was not close to reaching the playoffs after a stunning defeat by the New York Knicks on January 6, lowering the Celtics to a record of 18-21 and 11th place in the Eastern Conference.
But after a 33-10 series to close the regular season, and defeating the Brooklyn Nets, reigning Milwaukee Bucks champions and top seeded Miami Heat in the first three rounds of the playoffs, here the Celtics are clearly a team created in the image of Udoka and run by him leadership.
“He taught us things we could learn, and we taught him,” Marcus Smart said playfully. “We knew it was his first time, it would be difficult. It was hard. That’s the way it is, and the kind of team we took from him. … If you have such a coach, it’s hard not to follow. “
Udoka benefited from what he heard from key players such as Jason Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Smart and even veteran El Horford, who early expressed a desire to be pushed and challenged when needed.
This has happened several times. After a home loss to Chicago on Nov. 1, when Boston gave up a 19-point lead – one of several big gains that the Celtics blew up in the first half of the season – Smart, the longest-serving player, called Tatum and Brown for their reluctance to pass the ball sometimes.
The comments sparked a meeting only for the players shortly after this loss, but Udoka also backed Smart’s comments a few days later.
This led to awkward conversations in the locker room, but Udoka said it was also one of the moments that ultimately pushed their turn.
“I challenged their mental resilience. Some liked it, some did not, ”he said. “The team reacted, as it did all year. And we really said let’s stop messing around and giving up those benefits because we lost two or three 19-point benefits and lost a few games in Cleveland, Milwaukee for Christmas and Chicago before, and then in that game in New York. … I’m tired of it. I’m tired of this team. “
Since then, player-only meetings have not been reserved only for low scores, but the coaching staff has pushed them towards a more open dialogue.
Udoka also benefited from the first manager at Stevens, who made the necessary changes to the list while resisting others.
He, in particular, changed the list to a deadline, leaving seven players, including bodyguards Dennis Schroeder, Josh Richardson and great man Enes Freedom, along with first-round picks in 2022, and killing Celtics bodyguard Derrick White and center-back Daniel Thais.
This underscored the statement Udoka made when he took the job. That the responsibilities of the quarterback will be in the hands of Smart, who has patiently waited for his chance to become the main starting point since his new season 2014-15. Along the way, the Celtics have attracted all-star stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker. It turns out Smart was the playmaker they always needed.
This decision was confirmed by the fact that Smart was named the best defensive player in the league this season.
While the Celtics are preparing to return to the finals, Udoka is firmly convinced that this group has not reached its peak.
Minutes before he approached the team in the locker room after winning the conference title, he noticed the players smiling and everyone holding water bottles.
“What is it?” He asked. “We already made a bottle of water earlier this year.”
The team showered him with water, anyway, refusing to let his coach dodge while enjoying the moment, at least for a second.
As Udoka stood wet, with the widest smile on his face, he quickly diverted his team’s attention to her unfinished task.
“First of all, in this organization we do not post banners for the Eastern Conference championships,” Udoka said. “So a water holiday is not needed. We have bigger plans. “
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