During his seven-year career as an NBA player, Celtics coach Ime Udoka was called upon to defend everyone from Kobe Bryant to Dirk Nowitzki, with his tough, physical style serving as his most important asset.
No matter the challenge, no matter the opponent, the 6-foot-6-inch forward did not back down. If that meant tussling with an opponent a bit, so be it.
In Game 2 of the NBA Finals Sunday night, Udoka could only watch from the sideline as Warriors forward Draymond Green pushed, pestered, and nearly pulverized Udoka’s players, helping Golden State roar to a win that evened the series at one. Udoka is 44 now, but he probably wishes he could have put on a uniform and done something about it.
“I told them if I was a player, who I was, I would probably get a double technical immediately,” Udoka said Tuesday. “But that’s not everybody. Do what you do. Block it out, or meet physicality with physicality.”
After Golden State’s fourth-quarter collapse at home in Game 1, questions surfaced about whether the Warriors could keep up with these young, hungry Celtics. But Green needed just one game to flip the narrative.
He forced a jump ball on Boston’s opening possession. He drew a foul on Grant Williams when the two collided and fell, and picked up a technical foul moments later for flicking Williams away. He fouled Jaylen Brown on a 3-point attempt, then draped his legs over Brown’s head when both tumbled to the floor. He was an instigator and an agitator, and it was everything the Warriors wanted.
“I just thought it was something that we needed to bring,” Green said. “You get to the NBA Finals and physicality and meeting force with force is important. It’s just something that you have to bring to this game.
“I thought when I looked back at Game 1, when I watched the film and even just how I felt, I just didn’t think they felt us enough. You can’t get to this stage, to this level, and the reason you lose is because a team didn’t feel you. That’s a shame. You have to lose once you get to this level because a team was just better than you.”
For the Celtics, Green’s approach appeared to be a shock to the system. They understand that they cannot let it happen again.
“As any competitor would tell you, when you get hit in the mouth like that, there’s only one way to respond, and if you’re not really ready to do that, then you don’t need to be on this stage,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “This is a stage where we’ve got to be willing to risk it all out there for your team and for the victory, by all means necessary.
“That’s the mind-set that they have. It’s the mind-set we have. But we’ve got to go out there and execute it.”
Udoka said that during the conference semifinals against the Bucks and the conference finals against the Heat, both teams caused problems for the Celtics by raising their level of physicality. Now, the Warriors have done the same behind Green.
The good news for the Celtics is that in the previous two series, they responded. They’re confident they can do it again.
Smart, Boston’s own enforcer, has made it clear over the years that he relishes these opportunities to push back, and with a rowdy TD Garden crowd at the ready Wednesday night, he’ll certainly have plenty of backing.
But with Green, there is a fine line between responding to physicality and getting thrown off by his trash talk. The Celtics would rather not do the latter.
Udoka said that some players thrive in those environments, and if chirping with Green gets them going, then go ahead and chirp. But if it’s out of character, don’t bother.
“Be who you are,” Udoka said. “If you want to ignore it, ignore it. If you engage, engage. Do what you do. Be who you are.”
Brown was frustrated following his Game 2 altercation with Green. The two fell to the floor after Green fouled Brown, and Green’s legs ended up draped over Brown. Brown pushed them away, then Green pushed Brown, and then Brown stood over Green before the two were separated.
If Green had been called for a technical foul, it would have been his second, prompting an ejection. But both players stayed in the game, Green kept revving, and the Celtics kept unraveling.
“Don’t get caught up in that,” Brown said. “Just do what we do best. We ain’t got time for that. Just come out and play basketball, let everything else take care of itself.”