Ime Udoka convinced the Celtics to pass basketball

BOSTON — Ime Udoka has been emphasizing ball movement since the day Celtics hired him as a coach. AT his introductory press conference...


BOSTON — Ime Udoka has been emphasizing ball movement since the day Celtics hired him as a coach. AT his introductory press conference Last June, Udoka apologized to Brad Stevens, his predecessor and the team’s new president of basketball operations, to soften the blow before pointing out that the Celtics had finished last in the league. league in terms of assists last season.

“We want to have more team basketball,” Udoka said at the time.

It was not an instant fix for Udoka, whose team limped through mid-January with a losing record. The ball did not move. A bit of frustration was evident. But even during their struggles, Udoka felt his players were receptive to coaching, he said. So he reinforced his pass-first concepts in film sessions and by citing stats that showed the offense was more powerful when the ball was speeding down the field.

“It took a while,” Udoka said on Wednesday, “but I think they accept being playmakers and helping everyone score, and I think that’s nice for me and noticeable. when we play that way.”

Entering the NBA’s All-Star break, the Celtics resurfaced as one of the league’s best teams after winning 11 of their last 13 games, a streak of solid games that propelled them up the standings, cooled some of their critics and showed that Udoka’s formula “sharing is caring” can work in their favor.

“Turnovers are down and assists up because we’re getting rid of the ball,” Udoka said.

He made the observation hours before the Celtics (34-26) had their nine-game winning streak snapped Wednesday night by the Detroit Pistons, one of the league’s worst teams. It was the second straight game for the Celtics, who routed the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday and were without two injured starters, Smart Marcus and Rob Williams.

Still, the loss served as a reminder that good habits need to be nurtured, and the Celtics can build some before resuming their season against the Nets next Thursday.

“There has to be an upside for us to come back,” said veteran striker Al Horford, adding: “That’s where the fun begins.”

It always takes time for new coaches to integrate their systems, no matter how talented their staff. Pistons coach Dwane Casey knows the feeling. Ahead of Wednesday’s game, he recalled landing his first NBA head coaching job, with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2005. Kevin Garnett, a colorful figure and future Hall of Famer, had taken the habit of interrupting Casey whenever he tried to show the team a new game.

“It’s not easy,” Casey said. “You want to go with all these great ideas, but you learn pretty quickly that you have to be flexible, that you have to teach the players and that they have to have an idea of ​​you.”

Udoka had to be just as patient in Boston, where the Celtics’ season was less than two weeks old when a loss to the Chicago Bulls dropped his record to 2-5. Afterwards, Smart, the team’s starting point guard, used his platform in a post-game press conference to criticize Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the team’s two best players, for essentially cornering the ball.

The Celtics spent the following weeks fight against mediocrity – two wins here, three losses there – without much continuity. And they found themselves absorbing more barbs after a loss to the 76ers on Jan. 14. 76ers All-Star center Joel Embiid stated the obvious: the Celtics were a one-on-one team. Embiid went so far comparing them unfavorably to the Charlotte Hornetswhich the 76ers had faced two days earlier.

“Charlotte, they move the ball extremely well and they have shooters everywhere,” Embiid told reporters. “Obviously Boston is more of an iso-heavy team, so it becomes easier to charge in and try to stop them.”

Maybe that was a message the Celtics needed to hear. Tatum, 23, and Brown, 25, are formidable players, each capable of burning down a conga line of defenders on their own. And there are definitely times when they should enjoy their matchups. But Udoka wants all of his players to avoid “playing in a crowd”, he said, and to exercise more discretion. Above all, he seeks balance: quick breaks, pick-and-rolls, ball reversals.

“We have a multi-dimensional team that can score in different ways,” he said.

Sure enough, the Celtics were rolling by the time they made another visit to Philadelphia on Tuesday. Udoka provided some pre-game motivation by showing his players that old Embiid quote – the one about them being “easier” to defend than the Hornets had been. “It stuck with me when he said it,” Udoka said.

The Celtics won by 48 points. 76ers coach Doc Rivers spent the game pretending to be in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“You can literally see the improvement in ball movement,” he said. “Old Boston is more isolated. This Boston drives and plays with each other, and that’s what makes them so much tougher.

The Celtics, who are also among the league leaders in defensive ratings, took some smart steps ahead of last week’s trade deadline by acquiring versatile guard Derrick White and center Daniel Theis. defense.

As for the All-Star break, Udoka said he will be spending time with his family. But he also intends to immerse himself in the cinema by revisiting the difficult times.

“Really look at the struggles we had in the beginning,” he said, “and how we turned the corner.”



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