It’s not often NBA fans see a rookie head coach help lead his team to the NBA Finals.
But Ime Udoka did that in his first go-around as the big dog of the Celtics, leading Boston from a .500 start in the first 50 games of the season to a 26-6 finish over the final 32 games of the season. The Celtics also finished the regular season with the best defense in the League and remained the best among active teams in the playoffs.
It hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbow for Udoka. Despite serving as an assistant under Gregg Popovich, Brett Brown, and Steve Nash, the 44-year-old took several interviews but was told no by several teams — like Detroit, Indiana, and Cleveland —before Boston took a chance on him.
“I can go down the list. That was tough because I believe I was ready. But I couldn’t be more proud to be a part of an organization that’s pushing for winning and championships. You can be in a lot of different situations. There are only 30 teams, and I get that, but to not be in a rebuild and being in an expectation pressure-filled situation, I wouldn’t trade that in any day.” Udoka told Yahoo Sports.
When Udoka took on the Boston job following Brad Stevens’ abrupt resignation after eight seasons for a front-office gig, he did so while facing one central question. Could Boston afford to ask a first-year head coach to lead the Celtics where Stevens couldn’t?
“The one thing I would say is the disappointment of coming in second a few years really hurt,” Udoka said after the Celtics defeated the Miami Heat in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday. “But if you told me I’d have to wait for Boston and get [bypassed] by some of the ones that I got beat out on, it’s a no-brainer for me. I’m happy to be in Boston.”
In just one year, Udoka proved that he could. He’s proven himself to be a defensive mastermind, excellent communicator, and one of the brightest faces in the coaching profession. Udoka is tops amongst the record-high 15 black head coaches in the NBA right now, the most at any point in League history.
“I mean, the proof is in the pudding,” Celtics star Jaylen Brown told Yahoo Sports. “Look around the League. Now you’re starting to see what we can do in the coaching ranks. Before, the talk was that certain people of color were not qualified to do their jobs or whatever the excuse was. Man, you give these guys an opportunity, and look what they did with it. First-year head coach Ime Udoka took us to the Finals. Look at Monty Williams in Phoenix; look at Dallas with Jason Kidd. You look at all these coaches around the League, and I’m happy to see that they’re finally getting an opportunity. Black coaches and people of color are deserving, and they’re capable of getting the job done just like anybody else.”
While Udoka will get plenty of credit for guiding the Celtics to a massive turnaround in the second-half of the season and directing a top-ranked defense, he also deserves flowers for empowering Jayson Tatum and Brown despite talk around Beantown that Brad Stevens should break up the Brown-Tatum connection. Something Brown acknowledges was hard to ignore.
The NBA Finals begin Thursday, with the Warriors hosting Game 1 in San Francisco. The Warriors have a combined 123 games of experience compared to the 0 the Celtics have played. This is also their sixth Finals appearance in six years. With that insight, it makes sense that Udoka, Brown, and the Celtics have embraced being underdogs in the title series.
“We’ve been who we’ve been all year, and our defense travels well and carried us through the playoffs,” Udoka told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve played Golden State well this year. We blasted them at their place, had a tough loss at our place early in the season. And so it’s a new series. We know who we are and the things we do well, so we’re confident in that.”
“The Warriors are a tough team to play against,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “They’re smart, experienced, and they’ve got a lot of firepower. I’m excited and looking forward to the challenge.”