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Ime Udoka, after getting a second chance with the Rockets, opens up in a way he didn’t while with the Celtics

Ime Udoka takes over as coach of the Rockets, who are considered one of the more undisciplined teams in the NBA.Michael Wyke/Associated Press

Ime Udoka, previously banished for an inappropriate relationship with a Celtics employee, returned to coaching this past week when he was hired by the lowly Rockets.

Mutual interest created this marriage. The Rockets have young, talented players who need more seasoning and a strong mentor, and Udoka was looking for another job after botching his first opportunity.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and general manager Rafael Stone said they conducted an extensive background check on Udoka — as well as other candidates — and found was no patterns to his behavior in Boston.

Udoka had not spoken about his suspension since releasing a statement in September. He then admitted fault, revealing he attended counseling and tried to use the seven-month exile to improve as a person.


After leading the Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first season, Udoka was considered a prime candidate for jobs, but he appeared tepid about openings in Toronto and Detroit. The Rockets were interested in getting a deal done quickly, and Udoka didn’t resist.

“A lot of things were very attractive about this job. Cap space was a big deal,” Udoka said. “In general, they’ve done their due diligence on me as a person. We’ve spent quality time together getting to know each other and we’ve clicked pretty easily. I released a statement months ago when everything happened. I apologized to a lot of people for the tough position I put them in, and I stand by that and I feel much more remorse even now. I spent the last offseason working on myself in a lot of different ways, improving in areas with a chance to sit back, reflect, and grow, and I think that will make me a better coach and overall a better leader.”

Udoka wanted to move forward and discuss his new opportunity with the Rockets, but he understood that he had to address his Celtics departure.


“My part in it was to take ownership and accountability,” he said. “They had a choice to make, a decision, and they went that route. And my thing was to own up to it and take responsibility. I served the suspension and had to own it honestly. Same thing I’ll preach to the guys, I can’t sit here and not take accountability myself.”

Udoka was not usually as open with the media during his year with the Celtics. There were times when he was a man of few words when asked about anything besides basketball. He said he wants his story to be a cautionary tale about making poor decisions.

It didn't take long for Ime Udoka to return to an NBA sideline.Michael Wyke/Associated Press

“Having that time off and full understanding of how many people you impacted because of a poor decision, there’s where you start the ownership and accountability,” said Udoka. “I preach that to the players, so I have to take responsibility for my part in it. You can grow from adversity, so I think I’ve done that.

“The steps you take when you deal with adversity, there can be some beneficial things that come out of it. It would have been a wasted year if I sat back and sulked about certain things, but I took steps and a process to improve myself. I’ve become a better father, a better family member to the people I hurt. I looked at this as another challenge and how I am going to handle this adversity.”


The Rockets job is a considerable challenge. In Boston, Udoka inherited the core that had reached three Eastern Conference finals. The Rockets have had no success since James Harden asked for a trade 2½ years ago. They are considered one of the more undisciplined teams in the NBA despite potential All-Star talent in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr.

“One of my first messages will be youth is not an excuse,” Udoka said. “Across the board, whether it’s making the same mistakes, not executing the defensive assignments, poor shot selection, having some patience with that just like I had to do in Boston, I had to change the same habits there as well even those guys were a veteran group and had been around. There’s definitely some parallels. I talk about the success a lot of these young guys have is a result of what they do individually. You wanted to grow them as players overall.”

Udoka promised he will advise his 20-something-year-old players about their decisions off the floor. He will use his situation as an example of nearly losing everything because of poor judgment. Udoka is getting another chance to impact another group of young men. Let’s hope this experience is more positive.

“Being honest and upfront about what I went through and how your actions have consequences,” he said. “I can be a prime example of that, but at the same time how you can tackle that adversity and come out on the other side. What I learned through this process is being resilient, is really avoiding putting yourself in certain situations in the first place.”


Fertitta fully supported the hire after the team’s background check was complete.

“He is everything the Rockets were looking for,” Fertitta said. “We did so much due diligence on this gentleman going back to his playing days under [Gregg Popovich] and coaching, and everything he has done, and the respect he has from coaches, executives, players, front offices, we just got a glowing report. We’re just extremely happy. He’s going to hold these [players] to toughness, respectability, accountability.

“It was very important for me to feel good. The NBA told me they felt very comfortable with Ime becoming the coach of the Houston Rockets. So that made me feel very good after lengthy conversations with them. If you don’t believe in second chances, shame on you.”


What comes next for the Clippers?

Another year, another Clippers playoff exit with Kawhi Leonard sidelined.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Clippers have been eliminated from the playoffs early again, with injuries the theme of yet another season. Since former Celtics assistant Tyronn Lue took over for Doc Rivers as coach, the Clippers’ postseasons have been marred by ailments, primarily to superstar Kawhi Leonard.

Since signing with the Clippers in 2019, Leonard has been part of a team that blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets in the bubble. He then tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the 2021 playoffs, missed the 2022 playoffs with the same injury, and then tore a meniscus during Game 2 of the first-round series against the Suns this month.


Paul George also missed the Suns series with a knee injury, as the Clippers have rarely had their two maximum-salary players on the court simultaneously, with owner Steve Ballmer’s investment producing little. The Clippers wanted to compete with the Lakers for Los Angeles supremacy. They wanted to win their first NBA title, but they haven’t advanced past the Western Conference finals.

General manager Lawrence Frank was left this past week to explain the organization’s short-term plans. How long will Frank rely on the undependable Leonard and nearly equally unreliable George as franchise cornerstones when the Clippers are getting disposed of early in the playoffs every year.

“I feel bad for our fans,” said Frank. “I feel really bad for Kawhi and PG, our team, the staff, Steve, because we feel like we let our fans and that group down. Injuries suck. They suck. But they happen. For Kawhi and PG, for everything they put into their bodies to be healthy at this time, and to be injured, it’s devastating for them. They’re agonized. It’s painful.

“But I feel for our fans, who have been there every step of the way, and for Steve, who’s given us all the resources to try to achieve our goal each and every year, which is to win a championship.”

Frank packed the roster with talent and then made more trades before the deadline to become a legitimate title contender. Leonard was load managed the entire season because of his injury history. He then looked like the best player in the league during the first two games against the Suns, before being scratched for the final three games.

The shorthanded Clippers played hard, used a rejuvenated Russell Westbrook to make the series somewhat competitive, but weren’t good enough against Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. Frank was unhappy the Clippers had to fight to nab the fifth seed in West, and therefore did not have home-court advantage in the playoffs. Some picked the Clippers to win the championship, and they barely finished above .500.

“When you take a step back, what I don’t want to do is have the injuries or how hard we fought in the postseason to mask a disappointing regular season,” Frank said. “We have to be honest with ourselves, and we have to look in the mirror. It starts with me. And we have to get back to honoring and respecting the regular season. We have to compete harder, more consistently, and we have to earn it. Everything has to be earned. Regardless of who plays, I think we’ve shown in the playoffs that competing, that’s who we have to be about.”

The Clippers may lead the league in load management. Leonard has been notorious for missing games, but George has also been a culprit. He has played in just 189 of a possible 308 games in his four seasons in Los Angeles.

“You have to step back and look at it all,” said Frank. “A lot of times there’s a focus on the playoffs because that’s when everyone is watching, but we have to be honest about where we’re at. We’ll evaluate the season. We’ll evaluate the roster. We’ll get this team better. We’ll explore all possibilities. We’re open-minded. We’re creative. Even though the offseason came way too early, we’re excited about the possibilities and how this team is going to get better.”

Can the Clippers ever truly content with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George?Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

It’s a challenge for Frank to be optimistic, especially after this season. George’s knee injury was unexpected and came after an All-Star first half. Leonard was healthy for the first time since the bubble, until he wasn’t again.

“I think when you look at what we’re blessed with and what we have here, we have an unbelievable chairman in Steve Ballmer, who not only does he give us all the resources to be able to achieve our goals, he’s also so incredibly competitive, caring, passionate, and he’s all in,” Frank said. “We have a great head coach in T-Lue — he, like very much everyone else in our organization, is driven to improve. He’s obviously had to deal with a bunch of different rosters since he’s been here, and he’s adjusted and adapted.”

Frank said the Clippers will continue to build around Leonard and George, regardless of how risky of a plan that may be. Both have opt-out clauses in their contracts after this season. The Clippers will have to determine if one or both are worthy of maximum extensions. Age is becoming a factor. George turns 33 on May 2, while Leonard will turn 32 this summer. Are their best years behind them? Frank is banking they aren’t.

“We have two of the best players in the world, and like I said, when healthy, they give us a chance each and every year,” Frank said. “Through the years, we’ve been able to try to find players who fit best around them, and we’ll continue to do that, but I think our depth and talent played out in that playoff series, that Ty was able to put a good player on the floor with every — there are no bad players on this team. We’re very fortunate that we have them.”

There is an incentive for the Clippers to remain relevant. The club is opening a new arena in Inglewood in 2024, and they need headliners, especially if they want to compete with the Lakers.

“We’re in the best market in the NBA,” Frank said. “So, it’s exciting that not only can you try to build a great infrastructure with great people and a great chairman, but you’re doing it in a place where NBA players love to compete and love to live. It’s very disappointing that the season is over, yet at the same time we’re excited about the possibilities of this offseason.”

Lue appears to be losing patience with how the Clippers manage the regular season. There were nights when he had no idea if Leonard or George would play. The perception was the club would shut down players because of minor injuries, believing that they could make a deep playoff run despite their seed if healthy.

“I just think we need to compete harder every single night,” Frank said. “I think we owe it to ourselves. We owe it to the fans. We want to be a championship organization, and we have to invest deeper into the process.

“The last 28 years, the NBA champion has been a top-three seed. So, you have to earn it. The regular season matters. Not that our guys don’t think it matters, but I just think we, all of us, starting with me, we can compete harder every day. We can hold each other accountable every day. That’s what we have to do.”

Frank promises things will be different next season. The Clippers will take all of their games seriously, finish with the best possible playoff seed, and then hope for good health. There’s little he can do about preserving health or preventing freak injuries. But it’s obvious the Clippers have two of the more injured All-Stars in the NBA. That isn’t a recipe for ultimate success.

“I think you think about like when you watched us in the playoff series, even if you go back to last year’s team that won 42 games, the trademark of this organization has to be about competing, hard work, toughness, and it’s not that we didn’t do it at times this year. We did,” said Frank. “There were some really good moments. There were some really good individual stories. But as a team, in terms of what our goal is, we can compete harder in everything we do. We know we can.”


Jae Crowder made little impact for the Bucks in the playoffs.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

There was pressure on the Celtics to add a veteran from the buyout market, and they pursued sharpshooter Danny Green, who instead chose the Cavaliers and played in just eight regular-season games. He then appeared in four of five playoff games but attempted just five shots in the series loss to the Knicks. Meanwhile, Jae Crowder joined the Bucks from the Suns, hoping for a long playoff run, but now finds himself out of the postseason after playing a bit role. The long time off waiting for Phoenix to make a trade cost Crowder, who refused to play after the Suns handed his starting small forward position to Cameron Johnson. Crowder’s offensive numbers with the Bucks were actually impressive — 6.9 points in 19 minutes per game and 43.6 percent 3-point shooting. Crowder’s playing time was reduced in the playoffs to 10 minutes per game — and he averaged just 1.8 points — including a did not play, coach’s decision. Crowder wasn’t the staunch defender of his earlier days and he couldn’t help the Bucks against the wings of the Heat in the first-round series. Crowder will be a free agent this summer and the market may not be fruitful for the 32-year-old former Celtic … On a personal note, the death of Celtics vice president of public relations Heather Walker of cancer this past week was especially painful because of her professionalism and friendliness. Media members and PR staffs develop close relationships because they work together on a daily basis. Heather was the person you approached if you wanted to land a one-on-one interview with Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen. She also wanted to ensure the Celtics made contributions in the community. She always had a smile. She was always a friendly face. She was a dedicated wife and mother, and we watched her daughters grow over the years. The last time I saw Heather was in March 2022, when she attended Garnett’s number retirement. The cancer had taken its toll, but she was still fighting, still smiling, still displaying that motivating spirit. We will miss her around the Celtics. She was an integral part of the organization. She was the first person I dealt with when I became national basketball writer in 2009, and she was a good friend more than just a colleague. I think I can speak for the media members in saying things won’t be the same at TD Garden. Rest well, Heather.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.