In his first season as head coach, former Nets assistant Ime Udoka has led the Celtics to one of the best midseason trades in NBA history. And now he stands in the way of his old team, starting Sunday with Game 1 of the first-round playoff series at TD Garden.
“He is a player coach. He played the game,” Kevin Durant said. “The NBA is a grind, so he understands the work you would have to put into each one individually.
“He’s played some of the best players of all time and he’s arguably one of the best coaches in any sport, so there’s a lot of knowledge he got from there and he was an assistant coach for so long. So he went through the grind as a player and as a coach, and during that time, he understood what it’s like to win basketball.”
After jumping as a player with the Lakers, Knicks, Trail Blazers and abroad, Udoka found a home like glue in San Antonio playing for Gregg Popovich, with whom he landed his first assistant coaching job in 2012. Then came a stint with the 76ers, and another with Steve Nash on the Nets before finally getting his head coaching opportunity with the Celtics.
“I got to know him pretty well. He is a great guy,” said Nic Claxton. “He’s doing a phenomenal job, especially since they got off to a rocky start and came back. [after] the All-Star break. … That is drug. I am happy for him. He’s a good guy. But we will be ready for him.”
The Celtics were still under .500 (23-24) after a Jan. 21 loss to the Trail Blazers before closing out the season on a 28-7 run. Somehow they rose from 11th place, and out of the play-in, to finish second in the Eastern Conference.
“He has done a great job there in Boston. Ime is a great coach,” said Bruce Brown. “He just got them to connect, bond and play as a team. Ime is a great guy. He loved me when he was here. He helped me a lot. He talked to me a lot. He is just a great coach, he just gave me confidence, knowing what I have to do watching movies, just everything.”
When Udoka was a virtual defensive coordinator with the Nets, players raved about how genuine he was. And the Celtics responded to his defensive teachings, finishing No. 1 in the league. Of course, finally getting healthy helped.
“Yeah, he sure has done a great job,” Nash said. “Having said that, they have had the longest health that group has had in four or five years. So I think that’s also part of it.
“Last year I think [Jaylen] Brown was out in the playoffs, [Robert] Williams was in and out a lot. They obviously added pieces like [Al] Horford and some others. So part of it is that their staff did a great job, but part of it is that they’ve finally had a long history of continuity. You have the opportunity to see all his talent.”
Durant was asked about the impact of Jackie Robinson, who broke the MLB color barrier 75 years ago Friday at Ebbets Field, a flagpole that stands near the main entrance of Barclays Center on the corner of the Flatbush and Atlantic avenues.
“Yes, someone who was at the forefront of the whole conversation, pretty much took on everything himself as an athlete, as a black athlete in this country. And I endured so many tough times as an athlete that to this historic day, it still resonates with young athletes and older athletes and people in general,” Durant said.
“I mean, everyone in the world can relate to what happened. So his impact is still being felt today, especially here in Brooklyn and New York City and the places he passed through on his journey. So it’s good that we still honor him today.”