In his first season as head coach, former Nets assistant Ime Udoka led the Celtics to one of the best midseason turnovers in NBA history. And now he stands in his former team’s path, starting Sunday with Game 1 of the first-round playoff series at TD Garden.
“He’s a player’s coach. He played the game,” Kevin Durant said. “The NBA is a grind, so he understands the work you would have to do for each one individually.
“He’s played under some of the greatest players of all time and under arguably one of the greatest coaches in all of sport, so that’s a lot of knowledge he’s picked up from there and he’s been assistant coach for so long. So he just went through the grind as a player and as a coach, and throughout that time he just understood what winning basketball looked like.
After bouncing back as a player with the Lakers, Knicks, Trail Blazers and overseas, Udoka found a home as a glue guy in San Antonio playing for Gregg Popovich, with whom he got his first assistant coaching job in 2012. Then came a season with the 76ers, and another under Steve Nash on the Nets before finally getting his shot as head coach of the Celtics.
“I got to know him pretty well. He’s a really cool guy,” Nic Claxton said. “He does a phenomenal job, especially with them having a rough start and coming back [after] the break of the stars. … It’s drugs. I’m happy for him. He’s a good guy. But we will be ready for him.
The Celtics were still below .500 (23-24) after a Jan. 21 loss to the Trail Blazers before ending the season on a 28-7 streak. They somehow climbed from as low as 11th – and out of the play-in – to finish second in the Eastern Conference.
“He did a great job there in Boston. Ime is a great coach,” said Bruce Brown. “He just got them to connect and come together and play as a team. Ime is a great guy. I loved when he was there. He helped me a lot. He spoke to me a lot. He’s just a great coach, he just gave me confidence, knowing what to do while watching a movie, just everything.
When Udoka was a virtual defensive coordinator with the Nets, players raved about his authenticity. And the Celtics responded to his defensive teachings, finishing No. 1 in the league. Of course, finally getting healthy helped.
“Yeah, he did a great job for sure,” Nash said. “Having said that, they had the longest streak of this group in four or five years. So I think that’s part of it too.
“Last year, I think [Jaylen] Brown was out of the playoffs, [Robert] Williams was going back and forth a lot. Obviously they added parts like [Al] Horford and a few others. So part of that is that their staff did a great job, but part of that is that they ended up having a lot of long-term continuity. You can see all their talent.
Durant was asked about the impact of Jackie Robinson, who broke the MLB color barrier 75 years ago on Friday at Ebbets Field, a flagpole from which stands near the main entrance to Barclays Center on the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.
“Yes, someone who stood in front of the whole conversation, pretty much took charge of everything himself as an athlete, as a black athlete in this country. And I endured so many tough times as an athlete that today still resonates with young athletes and older athletes and people in general,” Durant said.
“I mean, everyone in the world can relate to what he went through. So his impact is still felt today, especially here in Brooklyn and New York and in the places he passed through on his journey, so it is fitting that we still honor him today.