NBA: First-year coach Ime Udoka has Celtics vying for record-setting 18th crown
Boston Celtics first-year coach Ime Udoka knows a gritty run through the Eastern Conference playoffs isn’t enough to cement his young team’s place in the history of a storied NBA franchise.
“Yeah, it would all be for naught if we go lay an egg in the Finals, and we understand that,” Udoka said after the Celtics edged the Miami Heat 100-96 in game seven of the East finals to line up a championship clash with the Golden State Warriors.
Sparked by young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and anchored by veterans Marcus Smart and Al Horford, the Celtics opened the playoffs with a four-game sweep of a star-studded Brooklyn Nets team led by two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant.
They followed up with a seven-game win over Giannis Antetokounmpo and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks before sending the top-seeded Heat home in another series that went the distance.
It might be impressive stuff, but the 44-year-old Udoka knows the Celtics franchise, whose 17 NBA titles are tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the most in history, demands more.
“Guys were quick to celebrate but quick to flip the page and say, we’ve got four more,” Udoka said. “We don’t hang or celebrate Eastern Conference championships in the Celtic organization.
“So we all fall in line and appreciate that standard of excellence.”
Udoka, like his Golden State counterpart Steve Kerr, once played for Gregg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs and he was an assistant coach under Popovich when the Spurs won the NBA title in 2014.
But his first season as a head coach didn’t appear to be heading for a title tilt when the Celtics were under .500 at the midpoint of the season and Udoka’s public criticism of his young stars didn’t appear to be helping the situation.
“There were definitely some tough moments throughout the season where (you don’t) doubt yourself but maybe question, can we do it?” Tatum said. “You start to realize how hard it is to win. You start to question yourself — are you good enough to be that guy?”
Smart said Udoka’s hard-nosed approach did, indeed, motivate the Celtics, who have used a powerhouse defense to overcome other shortcomings.
“(He) embodies everything that we embody,” Smart said. “He kind of puts it on you to let you know that, hey, I’m not taking no slack. And if you don’t like it, you can get up out of here.”
‘Ready for challenge’
Udoka said he never doubted the Celtics would respond, despite the injuries and the lingering uncertainties of the Covid pandemic that dogged all teams early in the season.
“To get to this point we had to flip the switch and turn around in a lot of ways, and guys were always receptive to being coached hard, to being pushed, to being asked to do more,” he said.
“And that shows the character of (being) pushed to grow and take the next step … our focus is getting four more.”
Udoka has a chance to become the 10th coach to win a title in his first season — a list that also includes Kerr who guided the Warriors to the crown in 2015.
The two teams split their two regular-season games, but tellingly, the Celtics held the Warriors to under 100 points in both.
“Very confident going in,” Udoka said. “We know it’s a high level team, executing team, has a ton of great shooters, great players overall, guys I know well, and we’re ready for the challenge.”
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