HOUSTON — Ime Udoka happily accepted the water dousing from his players, a new-jack way of celebrating a momentous occasion such as the Celtics’ 107-97 win over the Houston Rockets Sunday night at the Toyota Center.
The Celtics delivered the 44-year-old Udoka the game ball after he recorded his first NBA win after waiting years for his first head-coaching job. It wasn’t easy, however. After opening the season with a pair of sobering setbacks, the Celtics were forced to withstand a furious rally from an athletic but flawed Rockets team to post their first win of the season.
After the final horn sounded, Robert Williams seized the game ball from Udoka who was drenched in water by his players as he entered the locker room.
It had been a rough start to Udoka’s tenure, what with a double-overtime loss in the season opener to the host New York Knicks, followed by a 32-point drubbing at home by the Toronto Raptors. When the deed was finally done against the Rockets, Udoka had but one message for his players, “It’s about time.”
“I told them it’s overdue, you guys took too long to get it,” Udoka said. “It’s good to get a win. Not just for the first one, but to get us rolling on the right foot. I think we played the right way [Sunday night]. It’s on to Charlotte.”
The Celtics couldn’t look past the Rockets, a team in rebuilding mode but with a handful of exciting young players who played hard and didn’t make it easy on Udoka and the Celtics. The Rockets cut in half their 20-point deficit, pulling within 10 before Jayson Tatum and Grant Williams hit key shots down the stretch to seal it.
Tatum finished with 31 points and Al Horford added 17 in a vintage performance as the Celtics responded from their embarrassing performance Friday at TD Garden.
Jaylen Brown missed Sunday’s game with knee soreness, prompting Udoka to insert Dennis Schröder into the starting lineup. He responded with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists to help the Celtics lead the final 21:41 of the game.
Yet, the Rockets were relentless, forcing Udoka to play Tatum 37 minutes despite a matchup Monday with the Charlotte Hornets. After the Celtics surged to an 89-69 lead in the third, Rockets rookie Jalen Green, the second overall pick, kept the Rockets close with his 3-ball.
Green thrilled the crowd with 30 points, including eight 3-pointers and two highlight-reel dunks in the fourth quarter. He hit three 3-pointers in the opening period as the Rockets jumped out to an early 8-point lead, but Horford’s presence helped the Celtics restore order.
Horford, who had gotten off to a slow start through his first six quarters, asserted himself with 11 third-quarter points as the Celtics opened up a 20-point lead, scoring 36 points in the third on 55 percent shooting, their most efficient stretch of the young season.
“I think we got some stops on the defensive end and played with pace,” Schröder said. “I think that’s who we are. Every night, we’ve got to come out on the defensive side of the ball with the energy and it’s going to translate to the offensive end.”
Udoka stressed defensive improvement to the Celtics all throughout training camp. Against the Rockets, the Celtics were more consistent in the interior, outrebounding Houston, 24-17, in the second half and limiting starting forward Christian Wood to 8 points.
Udoka stuck with Horford and Grant Williams primarily in the frontcourt and it paid dividends. Williams was left open repeatedly because the Rockets collapsed on Tatum and made Rockets defenders regret that decision to leave him open by capitalizing on his open looks with a career-best five 3-pointers.
Considered a long shot in camp to gain considerable playing time, Williams trimmed down, worked on his jump shot during the summer and reported to camp ready to contribute.
So far this season, Williams is 9 for 13 from the 3-point line and appears to have cemented a spot in the rotation over Enes Kanter and Juancho Hernangomez, who was a candidate early in training camp to start.
“The biggest thing for me is to stay consistent throughout the whole year,” Williams said. “I want to be a person that’s reliable, that’s my most important thing.”
The Celtics were shorthanded with Jaylen Brown sitting out with left knee soreness and Romeo Langford a late scratch with calf soreness. That allowed Udoka to dig deeper into his bench, using Josh Richardson and Peyton Pritchard in key stretches.
But it was apparent for Udoka that he couldn’t take Horford out for long stretches because of his effectiveness on the floor. He finished with 10 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 3 steals and Udoka was able to keep him under his 30-minute limit.
“He’s doing great defensively,” Udoka said. “We can switch with him, having his back in more drop coverage. He covers a lot of holes in every way, assist-wise, leadership, shooting the ball, passing. He’s a huge complement for our guys, kind of a stabilizer out there and glue guy for our group. We love what we does for us and we looking forward to seeing more.”