During a mid-game interview, smack dab in the middle of the third quarter of a Game Seven, with his team on the verge of ousting the Milwaukee Bucks, first year Celtics coach Ime Udoka took not-so-subtle jab at the defending champs.
With his best player on the bench with four fouls, the unflappable Udoka was asked how soon he’d consider bringing Jayson Tatum back into the game.
“We’re a team that doesn’t rely on just one player,” he replied. Mic drop.
Whether he meant it or not, his Celtics were about to send home a team that does exactly that.
To be truthful, Milwaukee doesn’t rely on just one player. Last year’s champions were rather well-rounded. But without Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ post-season’s offense did focus heavily on their two-time MVP. In Sunday’s Game Seven, 24 of their first 24 points were either scored or assisted by Giannis Antetokounmpo. With their second-best player out with an ACL sprain, even more of the Bucks offense relied on Giannis in one way, shape or form. It got them to a Game Seven against Boston but no further. An exhausted and defeated Giannis slumped down on the bench after he could do no more. Boston advanced. There would be no repeat champion.
While Jayson Tatum is the highest profile player on the Celtics, rarely does he play such a dominant role in the entirety of his team’s offensive output. Jaylen Brown is a solid second superstar and one of the more underrated players in today’s game. Marcus Smart won defensive player of the year and can not only play five positions but more importantly guard them. And it never hurts to have Al Horford on your roster.
While it’s unfair to suggest that Milwaukee was relegated to becoming a one-man team, without Khris Middleton, the odds were stacked against them. It’s perfectly conceivable, however, if not entirely hypothetical that Boston would have beaten Milwaukee if they were healthy.
It bears note that only last year, Danny Ainge decided to step down from Boston’s front office. Brad Stevens left the sidelines to take his place. With Boston underachieving compared to their fan base’s expectations, even prior to that move, there were rumblings about changes being made. Stevens was their guy, hand-picked from the college game. So was Udoka apparently, yet few outside the league had ever heard his name.
They sure know who he is now.
It’s the NBA and it helps to have superstars, but it also helps to have balance. The Boston Celtics have balance. The Miami Heat, their next opponent, also have balance. Last year, the Bucks had balance.
Basketball is, and has always been, a team game. There is only one league MVP left in these playoffs.
Credit to Ainge, Stevens and Udoka for putting this team together, a team that finished the regular season by winning 25 of its last 30 games, a team who, like all other NBA teams had to deal with injuries and rose above. Tatum can have a bad game and the Celtics can still win. Tatum can be in foul trouble and the Celtics can still win. That takes the pressure off a guy who, at only 24 years old, is looked to shoulder on one of the most winning traditions in professional sports.
The Celtics might not win it all this year, or they might. But they’re in the Final Four with a very bright future and an even brighter coach.
Boston’s game plan to neutralize one of the most unstoppable forces in the NBA worked to a tee. They also swept Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving out of the playoffs.
First year coaches don’t just do that, especially with teams that have had problems getting over the hump in the past. Tyronn Lue won a title his first year in Cleveland but he had LeBron James. Steve Kerr did the same in Golden State but he had Steph Curry. Pat Riley and Paul Westhead won championships in their first seasons in L.A. but they both had Magic and Kareem. This Celtics team, while talented, doesn’t have players of that caliber, at least not yet.
Furthermore, Lue, Kerr, Riley and Westhead were all names we knew. While Udoka had played in the league for seven years, his name didn’t resonate. He became an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich then left San Antonio to be an assistant in both Philly and Brooklyn. He was on Boston’s short list when the job became available. One can only assume they’re happy with the way things have worked out.
He now faces another head coach who few had heard of when he was first hired: Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra has become of the game’s great young coaches. Don’t be surprised if Ime Udoka follows in his footsteps.