What’s ironic about the Celtics’ sweep over the Brooklyn Nets is that the coach who orchestrated this series win, who coordinated the defense that stifled the Nets superstars was actually an assistant to Steve Nash last season.
Ime Udoka was Nash’s top assistant last season, the third NBA stop for the former journeyman player who was seeking his first head coaching job.
The Celtics was hardly Udoka’s first interview. He was in a group of aspiring coaches who submitted resumes for various jobs, hoping a team would take a chance on a bright mind with no head coaching experience.
Udoka was waiting for his opportunity and didn’t utter a word of disdain or bitterness when Nash, the former MVP who had served as a consultant for the Golden State Warriors but had no other coaching experience, was chosen to coach the Nets with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Nash carried the big name, and he enjoyed a brilliant NBA career as a masterful point guard and appeared to be the perfect fit to deal with the high-maintenance personalities of Durant and especially Irving.
But what observers witnessed during the series is a coach in Udoka who has total command of the direction of the franchise, considerable influence over the players and their development, where they have taken on his no-nonsense personality.
For the Nets, Nash appeared lost after the last-second Game 1 loss, making few adjustments, relying on a flawed roster with aging one-way players or prospects such as Nic Claxton or Kessler Edwards who faltered in key moments.
Maybe it’s not that the Nets should have hired Udoka over Nash, but the Celtics capitalized on several NBA teams passing on Udoka because of his solemn personality and intense seriousness. Very little is known about Udoka. He is not active in social media. His most notable available information is his romantic link to actress Nia Long.
What the Celtics’ brass saw during interviews is Udoka’s ability to use a tough-love, and sometimes critical approach to bring out the best in the Celtics players. Brad Stevens was humble enough to admit that perhaps his message and philosophy had grown stale with his veteran players, and he was astute enough to hire someone who would use a different approach.
Jaylen Brown made a telling statement after the Celtics rallied to win Game 2 and take control of the series. Boston trailed by 10 at halftime, by as many as 17 in the game and yet had enough guile and fortitude to rally to steal the game in the fourth quarter.
“Mostly Ime showed his poise, he didn’t panic,” Brown said on April 20. “Last year that might have been the situation but Ime didn’t panic. We stayed with our game plan. We played aggressive and settled in a little bit. Credit to Ime, he didn’t panic. We weren’t playing as well in the first half and we stuck with it and found a way to win in the end.”
Brown’s intimation that last year would have been different is harsh truth. While Udoka didn’t hesitate to criticize his players publicly — something Stevens was reluctant to do — his brutally honest style eventually became easier to digest and process into something more positive.
“We’ve got a great relationship,” forward Jayson Tatum said of Udoka. “Definitely a player’s coach, a guy that played in the league. So he kind of just understands it. He’s done an unbelievable job in his first year. All the expectations and obviously the up and down season we were having at the beginning and how we’ve turned it around. It took everybody from the players and the coaches. Kind of a shame that he’s not in the finalist for Coach of the Year. He definitely deserves it.”
It’s not that the Celtics players didn’t like playing for Stevens. It’s that they needed more of a disciplinarian, someone who could serve as a mentor, big brother, life coach; someone who isn’t as careful with their feelings, who made the players understand that as the coach, he has the unquestioned authority to make changes, coach them hard and hold them accountable.
The same can’t be said for what’s happening in Brooklyn, where Nash appears to be just a guy calling plays, hoping he continues to retain the approval of Durant and Irving, who have claimed unyielding power in the organization.
The young Celtics, even their emerging stars, have allowed themselves to be coached, molded and guided. That’s the distinct difference with the two organizations that have been linked since Danny Ainge made that franchise-trade nine years ago.
“I’m happy for him,” Tatum said of Udoka. “In his first season, what he’s been able to accomplish, getting his first playoff run as a head coach. That’s big. I’m glad that we got him.”
Brown reiterated his Game 2 statements after Game 4. The Celtics became a more clutch team in the fourth quarter because their coach always had a plan, always had a wrinkle to unleash. And let’s be honest, there were probably six or seven strategies, lineup changes and defensive wrinkles Udoka didn’t use against the Nets because they weren’t necessary. They had the series under control.
“Ime for a first-year head coach, plenty of poise,” Brown said. “I know he played the game and been on championship teams, you can tell because in the high-pressure moments like [Monday], he seemed to have the poise. He wanted us to stay calm. Oftentimes when you are playing for a coach, his leadership is going to reflect on to [the team]. Leadership is important from coaches to players to the organization. This year has been pretty special from the top to the bottom.
“As we move forward, looking to maintain that, just embracing who we are. What Celtics basketball is all about traditionally, just playing the game the right way. Creating that new culture, that new environment that we’re all looking forward to and enjoying right now.”