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Celtics stayed course with Ime Udoka and now it’s paying dividends

Bostono Celtics coach Ime Udoka has turned the Celtics into a defense-first outfit that wins games with timely scoring while relying on Jayson Tatum in the clutch, such as Thursday, when he scored 21 in the fourth quarter.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

What Ime Udoka won’t do despite the ability to send a bunch of “I Told You So” letters to several critics, is bask in the glory of the Celtics’ current run or his Eastern Conference Coach of the Month Award .

He received the award hours before the Celtics defeated the surging Memphis Grizzlies 120-107 at TD Garden, a game that was considered a stern test for a Boston club that has spent most of its ascension beating lesser teams.

The past two games against the Atlanta Hawks, who had beaten the Celtics twice this season, and the Grizzlies were supposed to determine whether Boston is a serious contender. The Celtics passed those tests easily.

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In the third quarter of each game , following halftime adjustments from Udoka, the Celtics held their opponents to 15 for 44 shooting and just 40 points. Those maneuvers allowed the Celtics to take control of both games and cruise to critical victories.

With 20 wins in 26 games, the Celtics have surged to fifth in the Eastern Conference with 17 games left, thanks to Udoka’s coaching, patience, and unwavering insistence on changing years of middling habits. And that process was not going to conclude neatly in training camp, with the Celtics ready to take on the world opening night.

Boston took its lumps in the first three months, blew at least a dozen games, was besieged by injuries and COVID-19 protocol, mental lapses, and poor shooting nights. Yet, in the past 15 games, in which the Celtics are 13-2, they have played like a championship contender, or at least a team determined to win more than just a playoff round.

Udoka, a basketball junkie, , is the reason for this surge .

“You’ve got to give him credit, he does a great job of staying with us,” guard Marcus Smart said. “It would have been easy for him to go and be like, ‘what the hell is going on with this group?’ But he continued to stay a positive force, encourage us, stay on top of us, hold us accountable, and it’s starting to show, rightfully so. He deserved that and we’re very proud of him and we want to continue to go out and play the way he wants us to, for him.”

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Marcus Smart is a fan of Ime Udoka.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

All in the Celtics Kingdom wasn’t so warm and fuzzy a few months ago. The team, with its lackadaisical stretches, fourth-quarter meltdowns, and erratic shooting, was wearing on Udoka’s patience. But he also has had to adjust game plans and strategies to get the best out of his players.

Udoka has become a better coach in the past few months. He has learned to adjust to the strengths and weaknesses of his roster. The Celtics aren’t the most talented or deep team in the NBA. They have a lot of versatile players but not a lot of great shooters or scorers – besides Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Udoka has turned the Celtics into a defense-first outfit that wins games with timely scoring while relying on Tatum in the clutch, such as Thursday, when he scored 21 in the fourth quarter. The defense has been the primary reason for this resurgence and defense is something Udoka said he was going to improve the day he was officially announced as head coach.

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“The individual part doesn’t really mean much to me,” Udoka said of the Coach of the Month Award. “The main thing is it means we’re playing well and that’s the bottom line. You get recognition, it’s a reflection on the guys; they’re playing well and you have to win and play at a high level to get an award like that.”

After the eight-year stint with Brad Stevens, the last two of which were difficult and his message started fading, the players said they wanted a disciplinarian, a stern coach who would not allow the slippage of the past few years. They got that in Udoka and they slowly began to adjust to his style, which has few similarities to Stevens.

“That’s what really matters, that they’re letting us coach them,” Udoka said. “They’re letting us push them and learning and growing throughout the season and kind of what we thought we’d have when we got healthy. Credit to them for allowing us to coach them hard. That’s what they asked for and they’ve been great with it.”

Ime Udoka directs the action during a recent game at TD Garden.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

The adjustment period was longer than expected. The Celtics were considered one of the bigger disappointments of the first half. But slowly Udoka’s words began to yield more power, especially when the team began having more defensive success. Celtics Al Horford said he thought the change began with a Dec. 31 win over the Phoenix Suns, when the offense began to improve and the defense transformed from average to elite.

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“It’s one of those processes that is challenging because it’s almost breaking some ways that we used to play before and trying to buy into the way he wants us to play,” Horford said. “Getting out of our comfort zone, we’re asked to do different things. That takes time as you can tell. The defense has continued to pick up as the year has gone on. (Udoka) came in and put some (offense) sets in us, forcing us to move the ball a little more. From that point on, it started to click how we wanted to play.”


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.