Ime Udoka is who so many fans — and media members — desperately wanted Brad Stevens to be.
Ten months after Stevens left Boston’s bench to replace Danny Ainge as the team’s new President of Basketball Operations, the Celtics, with Udoka at the helm, look and feel like a team that can make — and win — an NBA Finals after sweeping the Brooklyn Nets.
A few weeks ago, it wouldn’t have been a surprise if Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant & Co. upset the No. 2 seed Celtics as a seventh seed that had to make the playoffs via the Play-in Tournament. The tandem of Durant and Irving with the shooting of Seth Curry and the possible return of Ben Simmons was too tempting of a pick to ignore given how the Celtics have been a team that’s been “one year away” since 2017.
But, that was during the Danny Ainge/Stevens regime. Under Udoka, this finally feels like the Celtics’ year.
“Around January we got our whole team. We were always right there,” said Jayson Tatum — the best player in the series — said after the Celtics 116-112 win in Brooklyn. We stayed composed. We stayed together. We didn’t lose sight of what we were trying to accomplish. It was only a matter of time, and we haven’t looked back since.”
It’s not just that Boston swept the Nets, it’s how they did it. Outside of a phenomenal Game 1 performance from Irving and a 39-point performance from Durant in the finale, the “most-skilled” duo in the game were put in a cross-face chicken wing submission hold by Udoka’s defensive gameplan. There were no lanes to penetrate. All jumpers were contested. And help-defenders were always in the right position. It was like watching two lions getting mauled by a pack of gazelles. There’s strength in numbers.
Ever since Stevens showed up on the scene when he took Butler to back-to-back national title games in 2010 and 2011, he was immediately tabbed as the next wunderkid of coaching. He was young, smart, and most importantly, white. But, what people always forgot to mention about Stevens was that despite his “brilliance” on the sidelines, it never produced anything of actual substance when it came to winning the games that mattered.
As close as Gordon Hayward’s shot came to going in against Duke, it didn’t. And when Butler returned to play for it all against UConn in 2011, it ended in a loss in a game so terrible that Stevens’ team shot 18 percent from the field in a game in which they only made 12 field goals.
“Butler really plays defense,” said former UConn coach Jim Calhoun after defeating a team that put together the worst shooting performance in the history of the national title game. “I mean, they really play defense. And we really play defense, and I think eventually our quickness and length got to them, but from a purist standpoint, if you really like defense, take a clip of this game.”
That quote sounds like it should be coming from Steve Nash describing Udoka’s defense, given how the Nets’ explosive offense was tranquilized throughout the series.
“I was just thinking too much to be honest, this whole series,” Durant said after Game 3.
“I feel like the first two games I was trying to be too aggressive,” he explained. “A team that’s loading up on me, that’s trying to take me out of all my actions. I felt like I was still trying to force the first two games and watching film, a lot of my teammates were open and they were knocking down shots, so I felt my approach to this game was to play off of everybody — get in the flow of the offense and let the ball move and find me.”
After drafting Jaylen Brown, having Tatum fall into his lap, and acquiring Irving and Hayward via trades and free agency, outside of putting together the 2008 team that won the Celtics their 17th title, Ainge’s greatest legacy in Boston as an executive maybe how much he left on the table, given all the talent he missed on. All the draft picks that Ainge stockpiled over the years never led to him landing the high-profiled free agent he wanted so badly like Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, or Jimmy Butler.
However, this Celtics team is not about who they added to the roster, but more about who they hired to coach it. Ironically, Udoka just dispatched the same team that sent Ainge to retirement — and then to a position with the Utah Jazz — and Stevens off the bench. The changes that came in Boston at the end of last season occurred a day after the Nets sent the Celtics home in five games after their first-round matchup.
If the Celtics go on to win it all, it will be because of who they hired as their head coach and how he took this team to a level that the old regime could not, despite the valiant efforts of Isaiah Thomas and his run in 2017, the underdogs of 2018 that fell to LeBron in the conference finals, or the Tatum and Brown Celtics that fell short against the Miami Heat in The Bubble.
Udoka also has the history of the luck of the “Black Irish” on his side. Over the years, the Celtics have had five Black coaches in Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, M.L. Carr, Doc Rivers, and Udoka. Besides Carr and Udoka — as of now — the rest of them won championships. They also all, besides Carr, have a higher winning percentage in the regular season and playoffs than Stevens.
When Danny Ainge hired Brad Stevens in 2013, he said: “his teams always play hard and execute on both ends of the court. Brad is a coach who has already enjoyed lots of success, and I look forward to working with him towards Banner 18.” Nine years later, it looks like Stevens may be getting ready to say the same thing about Ime Udoka. But this time, it’ll be rightfully deserved.