The Celtics begin the first season under coach Ime Udoka with 10 of their first 15 games on the road. It’s an arduous beginning for a team that’s still getting to know each other and serves as the first major challenge for the first-year coach.
The next week is critical for the Celtics in terms of preparing for this road. They have two preseason games remaining and three or four practices before the Oct. 20 opener against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Udoka has to pick the final starter and also develop a capable second unit over the next few days. The Celtics have made strides over the past few weeks, showing signs of being an above-average defensive team and the ability to contain opponents with their athleticism.
Udoka said he wants Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to become better playmakers. Tatum has not only grabbed 18 total rebounds in the first two games but also has nine assists and nearly notched a triple double in 28 minutes.
Brown scored 25 points in 26 minutes in the preseason opener but won’t appear for the rest of the preseason because of COVID-19 protocol. The encouraging sign is that Tatum has not been as ball-dominant in the first two games and has realized that the defensive attention he receives can make life easier for his teammates.
“We’re trying to make it easier, not as difficult, on the perimeter all the time, using his size and length,” Udoka said. “He’s a willing passer. We knew Toronto was extra aggressive on mismatches and posts, and we baited some of those early and he’s doing a great job.
“He’s been doing it all camp. And the easy ones are the kick-outs, but he finds guys cross-court and has the size to do some things like LeBron [James] or Luka Doncic can see over the crowd and he’s been great with that.”
Because of his ascension as an NBA player and his Olympic performance, Tatum is going to be the defensive focus of opposing teams; he’s already being collapsed on during the preseason. Tatum will have to the make the necessary adjustment to get himself open shots.
What’s been positive about Celtics training camp is it appears every player has taken a step forward. Grant Williams has slimmed down and improved his jumper. Peyton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith have shown progress after a strong summer league. Robert Williams is still healthy and Al Horford looks five years younger.
The schedule will be difficult, and Udoka wants to not only simultaneously take time to implement his system, but also play with a sense of urgency since Boston is chasing Eastern Conference favorites Brooklyn and Milwaukee.
“It’s a continuation from the preseason and some of things that we’ve done, but you start to see pretty quickly what works for you, what lineups and what schemes,” Udoka said. “You’re learning each other as you go but you want to get off to a good start, especially with seven of our first 10 on the road. We have to find out what works for us to win games.”
What’s critical for the Celtics’ success is they become a strong road team. Boston went 15-21 away from TD Garden last season, its first losing road record in five years. The Celtics were wildly inconsistent, especially on the road. To grab one of the top three playoff seeds, that has to change.
“Everywhere I’ve been, take it back to the San Antonio days, we were one of the best road teams traditionally,” Udoka said. “Myself as a player, I always enjoyed going on the road and I told the guys there’s no better feeling to watch as a player or coach than to watch the fans empty out of a building.
“So you want to have that confidence on the road. It can’t be just a home thing. You have to be playoff-tested and win on the road. That confidence and that mentality carries whether you’re on the road or at home. It’s something to have preached to them, especially with our start.”
It’s going to take a while to determine whether the Celtics have improved their toughness and fortitude from last season, but it appears they are taking the right approach in training camp. They are being overlooked in the East. They were considered one of the favorites last season. This season, they are hardly being discussed, considered a team with several question marks, a roster makeover and some veterans coming off subpar seasons.
And they’ll be tested immediately with 10 of the first 15 on the road, including matchups with the Knicks, Heat, Bucks, Mavericks, Hawks, and Hornets. But it’s encouraging for Celtics faithful that Udoka is already instilling the message that they need to play with more swagger on the road. They will need it.