‘I love having Ime’: Jayson Tatum credits Ime Udoka, Celtics’ defense for drastic turnaround

The Celtics are 48-30 after sitting at 25-25 in late January.

Ime Udoka
It didn't start out that way, but things have been all smiles for Ime Udoka, Jayson Tatum, and the Celtics as of late. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

When Knicks guard RJ Barrett nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to knock off the Celtics on Jan. 6, it looked like the team was staring at another season in the play-in tournament.

Boston fell to 19-21 on that night. Following the loss, in which the Celtics blew a 25-point lead, first-year coach Ime Udoka called out the team for “a lack of mental toughness to fight through those adverse times.”

Since then, it’s mostly been rosy for the Celtics. They’ve won 29 of their last 38 games, climbing up to third place in the Eastern Conference standings and are just 1.5 games back of the first-place Heat.

While Udoka’s harsh words could have been viewed negatively, Celtics star Jayson Tatum appreciates his new coach’s style. In an interview on Warriors star Draymond Green’s podcast, Tatum shared what he likes about Udoka.


“I think having a new staff sometimes and just having a new voice can be helpful,” Tatum said. “I love having Ime. Obviously we started off and it was rocky, it was up and down. But I think that’s just part of it. Obviously people expect you to adjust just like that, and the reality is, things take time.”

“One thing I appreciate is that he’s definitely coached me hard and held me accountable and held everyone accountable, and I think that’s something that we definitely needed,” Tatum said. “We’ve got an open-door policy. Everybody can voice their opinion. The top man or the 15th man … you’ve got something to say, you can say it, and I think that’s definitely made us better these last two and a half months.”

Arguably the biggest reason for the Celtics’ turnaround has been their stellar defensive play. Since the loss to the Knicks in January, the Celtics have held the league’s best defense, posting a 104.6 net rating.

Tatum credited not just Udoka’s defensive philosophy, which is to switch on every screen, but he also credited teammates like Al Horford, Robert Williams, and Marcus Smart for setting the tone on that end of the floor.


“We wasn’t used to [Udoka’s defensive philosophy],” Tatum said. “I’ll be the first one to say I was a little hesitant, because I had only known one way for four years.

“My first three years, we were always a top-five defense. We wasn’t this good, but I was just so accustomed to doing things a certain way, and I think part of growing is being open to change, and that’s something I’ve definitely learned this season. It was not perfect at first, but once we really bought in and got healthy, obviously it’s been working.”

“It definitely is coaching,” Tatum added. “When you look at teams that have the best defenses, like, they got guys on their team that give an [expletive] on defense.

“That’s something that we hold everyone accountable, from the first man to the last man. Like, we may not be the best offensive team, but we’re gonna hang our hat on the defensive end, and everybody’s got to pull their weight.”

In the moments after the January loss to the Knicks, outside chatter of the Celtics having to split up Tatum and Jaylen Brown got louder than it ever had been. After all, the team was in 11th place in the conference at the time and finished .500 the year prior.


Tatum and Brown have helped bury that talk with their recent play as they’ve both hit some historic marks. Tatum averaged over 30 points per game in March while Brown’s scored 25 points in his last eight games. Furthermore, they became the first pair of Celtics teammates to each score 30-plus points and dish out five-plus assists in a game since Larry Bird and Danny Ainge did it in 1987 on Friday.

The pair reached the Eastern Conference Finals in two of their first four seasons together, which led Tatum to say that “We’ve had way more success than we haven’t.” Tatum knows the only way to fully silence any doubts people have of him and Brown together is to win at the highest level – which he believes they can do, and that they’re right for each other.

“Yeah, it seems like we’ve been together forever. It’s been five years. But I just turned 24 and JB’s only 25,” Tatum said. “They say they don’t reach your prime until you’re 28? 27, 28, 29?…30? If you look at it at that point, it’s like ‘Damn, we’re still not as good as we’re going to be.’

“And for us, we’re two of like the most competitive guys. I think one of the best things of my career – and his – is that we’ve played on the same team. We work with each other, work out, played 1-on-1 a million times. I push him and he pushes me. It’s a healthy competitiveness and environment between the two of us.


“The strides that he’s made from his first year to who he is now – he made the All-Star Game last year, I was extremely happy for him just knowing how far he’s coming and the player he is now. Just seeing what he does know, that only means he’s been working on his game. That’s all that that means. I know that about him and I know how bad JB wants to win aside from everything else.

“We trust each other enough. I’ve been in enough close games, I’ve been in enough playoff series where I know if I got No. 7 on my team, he’s going to do whatever it takes to help us win this game. We’ve won enough close games together, enough playoff series. If push comes to shove, I know he’s got my back and I’ve got his. It’s fine if the whole world doesn’t see that or know that. We’re not posting on Instagram hanging with each other every day and this and that. And that’s fine. As long as we know and the people in the locker room know that we’re in this together, it’s going to make for a better story whenever we do hang that banner. Like, we can do this together.”

Tatum believes that the Celtics can win a title this season and that should be the goal. However, looking forward to next season, Green has one goal set for Tatum.

“If you don’t get MVP next year, you’re weak as [expletive].”


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