He doesn’t smoke cigars on the bench when the game is won like Red. He doesn’t patrol the parquet while he is coaching the team like Bill Russell and Dave Cowens. He doesn’t stomp his feet, yell at the refs, and wear those plaid sportscoats like Tommy did. He doesn’t croon at nearby hotel piano bars like K.C. He didn’t demand the title of team president like Rick Pitino. He didn’t announce the Celts are “championship driven” like M.L. Carr. He didn’t take the team to Europe and introduce them to Ubuntu like Doc Rivers. He hasn’t memorized every line of “Hoosiers” like Brad Stevens.
Ime Udoka just coaches the Celtics in his low-key fashion, demanding focus and respect.
The 44 year-old rookie is a stranger to most Boston sports fans, far less known than Bill Belichick, Bruce Cassidy or Alex Cora. Most of his public speaking has been muffled by a mask and we don’t hear a lot of noise coming from the Celtic bench during games. Udoka hasn’t earned a single ejection this season.
But he has his team playing the best ball in the NBA as we approach the playoffs next month. The Celts dominated the Timberwolves, 134-112, Sunday night at TD Garden to make it 22 wins in 25 games and a gaudy 29-7 record since Jan. 6.
The victory vaulted the Celtics into a tie for first with Miami in the Eastern Conference with tough games upcoming Monday at Toronto and Wednesday at home against — the Heat.
So, coach, what’s the ceiling for this team this year?
“Obviously, you look at our record and what we’ve done against the best teams," Udoka said before taking on the T’Wolves. “We were competing with everybody and that was at times when we weren’t whole or as good as we are now. The sky’s the limit with us. No problem competing with anybody and I don’t think our team is fearing anybody, so we are going for it, come playoff time."
Udoka is the coach Celtic players wanted after things fell apart in the playoffs against the Nets in the .500 season of 2020-21. Underachieving stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown were consulted after Stevens left the bench (to take Danny Ainge’s job as president of basketball operations) and Udoka got two thumbs up.
Udoka is an NBA journeyman (12 years of pro ball) and longtime NBA assistant coach (Spurs, 76ers, Nets) who guarded Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, then won a ring on Gregg Popovich’s staff in 2014. In the middle of last June, he was named the 18th head coach of the Celtics.
They lost their season opener in double overtime against the Knicks in New York. They followed that with a 115-83 beatdown against Toronto and were booed off the parquet … in their home opener.
“One thing I can’t stand as a coach is to get punked out there," Udoka said after the Raptors debacle. “I felt they came out and punked us, outplayed us, played harder than us, all the things we talked about. You don’t want to overreact and panic. We’re going to stay together and keep our heads up."
Hours before Boston’s second home game, Udoka looked at his players during a lethargic, game-day, shootaround and told them, “You’re going to get your [expletive] kicked tonight if you come out with that focus in the game."
His team responded with a 116-107 loss to the Wizards.
“Nothing that was said publicly wasn’t said behind closed doors to them," Udoka said Sunday afternoon. “They weren’t caught off guard by any of it. They understood it. We’ve got a high-character group that is pushing to be better in a lot of ways and those things don’t bother them at all."
“That right there reminds me of Bill Fitch a little," said Cedric Maxwell, who won a championship as MVP of the Finals for Fitch in 1981. “Bill was always throwing guys under the bus and Ime doesn’t mind doing it now and then. That’s rare in today’s NBA because today’s players are sensitive."
It took these Celtics a few months to respond to Udoka’s style. Injuries and COVID set them back. But even when healthy, they blew a lot of big leads and had trouble moving the ball around at the end of close games.
We saw blown lead after blown lead. In December, Marcus Smart called out his teammates. On Jan. 6, the Celtics lost to the Knicks and fell to 18-21. Boston was in sole possession of last place in the Atlantic Division.
Weighing in from Worcester, 93-year-old Bob Cousy said, “There’s something wrong. It’s just schoolyard. Run up and down and take the first shot that shows. There doesn’t seem to be intelligent direction. They usually [expletive] it up in the fourth quarter when you need to be paying attention to business . . . They should be a lot better than they are. It doesn’t look like we’re going to be hanging banner No. 18 anytime soon."
Now the Celtics are a team no one wants to see in the playoffs. Udoka was named Eastern Conference coach of the month in February.
“It’s been great,” Udoka said. “We’ve gone through our ups and downs, which have benefited us. Expectations are there. I love our group and what they have done. They’ve adjusted to what we’re asking. I’ve gotten to know them better. There were a lot of things in the first few months, but I think it’s helped us.”