‘It means you’re reaching them’: Coach of the Month Ime Udoka has flipped the Celtics script

"Means we're playing well. Bottom line."

Ime Udoka
Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart gets a pat on the back from head coach Ime Udoka during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks. AP Photo/Charles Krupa

In December, Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens took it upon himself to defend head coach Ime Udoka in an interview with Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe.

“He’s a guy I believe in,” Stevens told Himmelsbach. “I just think it’s so important not to get into celebrating your success or bemoaning your losses. It’s about, go find solutions. And he does that. He’s constantly searching, constantly thinking.”

Stevens’ defense of his new coach didn’t come out of nowhere. Udoka took heavy criticism early from fans frustrated by a new-look Celtics team that played identically to last year’s lackluster group. Fans didn’t appreciate that he was hard on Celtics players. They didn’t appreciate that the Celtics looked essentially no different. They didn’t like his rotations. They didn’t like that he buried young players on the bench.


A few months later, Udoka seems to have found whatever he was “constantly searching” for, flipping the script entirely both on himself and this Celtics’ team. The Celtics won nine games in a row before the All-Star break. They’ve won three of four since. They are suddenly part of a very different conversation about their ceiling. National outlets are calling them a “contender” — a word that would have been a joke in Celtics circles just a few short months ago.

At the center of it is Udoka, the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for his team’s performance in February.

“Means we’re playing well,” Udoka said when asked about the award before Thursday’s game. “Bottom line. I mean those individual awards are really a reflection of the team and what they’re doing. And, as I’ve said all year, our group is great and lets us push them, coach them hard. And that’s where the results are showing for that. And so more than anything, means we’re heading in the right direction.

“Those accolades come but, for me personally, it’s a reflection of those guys. I don’t care about the personal but I care how we’re playing, what direction we’re going.”


Udoka isn’t entirely wrong. The Celtics don’t start this new conversation without Jayson Tatum’s emergence as a double-team-drawing distributor, or Marcus Smart’s willingness to trust teammates and take a backseat offensively, or the entire team’s bruising, muscular defensive style. Udoka isn’t sliding his feet, rotating to shooters, or rejecting shots at the rim.

But Udoka does deserve credit for several things. First, he stuck to his guns even when he drew criticism for coaching the Celtics hard.

“It means you’re reaching them,” Udoka said. “I’ve talked about it quite a bit,  that the guys asked for that and then they’ve allowed us to coach them, which is not always the case. A lot of people will say one thing and when you’re on them relentlessly, over and over about some of the things that you want to change or improve on, they’ll either go south or not be receptive to them. Our guys have responded, as I mentioned, quite a bit.”

Probably most important to the Celtics’ success has been their defense, which was Udoka’s calling card before the season. In November, the Celtics were the NBA’s sixth-best defense allowing 103.7 points per 100 possessions. In February, they were No. 1 as their defensive rating dipped down to 101.4.


After the defense, the other important aspect of Udoka’s success might be Tatum’s tremendous improvement. As Sports Illustrated’s Michael Pina noted, 22.1 percent of Tatum’s shots came from mid-range in November. That number shrank every month. In February, just 12.1 percent of Tatum’s shots were mid-range. Interestingly, Tatum’s 3-point attempts have stayed relatively steady. His assist percentage, meanwhile, rose from 18.0 in November to 21.1 in February.

Like Udoka said, Tatum deserves most of the credit. But Tatum is happy to pass credit Udoka’s way as well.

“Obviously, I have a lot of respect for him and how he approaches things and his basketball mind,” Tatum said on Thursday after shootaround. “I definitely acknowledge and know that since day one, he’s pushing me to be the best that I can be, and I appreciate that.”

Ultimately, this Celtics team will likely be judged from the outside by what they do in the playoffs. But the tandem of Udoka and the Celtics’ core looks like it has a real future in Boston.

“They’re allowing us to push them,” Udoka said. “We’re in a good spot and just want to continue to grow from there. So the bottom line is they have to let you coach them and that’s what it comes down to. Our group has been great as far as that.”


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