Saturday, January 13, 2024

Ime Udoka 'not too sentimental' ahead of Celtics vs. Rockets matchup

The Celtics are moving on from Thursday's blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, while Ime Udoka looks to do the same from his lone season as a head coach in Boston.

Udoka is set to make his return Saturday night to TD Garden for the first time as the new coach of the Houston Rockets. While it may be a big deal to some, he says it's just another game on the calendar during a road trip when asked if the matchup against the Celtics in Boston will have a different feel.
 "No, not really," Udoka said in his postgame presser Friday night. "I look at one at a time and was not thinking ahead of Detroit at all tonight. For me, you go back to somewhere where you had some success, but overall I'd say I'm not too sentimental of a person and won't get caught up in anything like that."
For Udoka, who hasn't stepped foot on to the parquet since Game 6 of the 2022 NBA Finals where he and his now former players watched the Golden State Warriors celebrate another championship, it somewhat brings closure to his short stint at the helm of the best season the Celtics have had since the days of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

In what can only be described as a rollercoaster 2021-22 campaign, Udoka and the Celtics got off to a 25-25 start, before they bought in to go 22-3 the next 50 games and make a run back to the Finals for the first time since the 2009-10 season.

Despite the successful first year for a rookie head coach of the league's most storied franchise, it all came undone during the offseason as the Celtics suspended Udoka for the entire 2022-23 campaign for violating multiple team policies, including having an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the organization -- according to team governor Wyc Grousbeck.
"We go to great lengths … to run the organization with the central core value of respect and freedom in the workplace from harassment or any unwelcome attention," Grousbeck said during a press conference back in September of 2022. "This feels very much, to me, like one of a kind. That's my personal belief. But I'll have to verify that."
Joe Mazzulla was named interim coach a day before the start of training camp that eventually led to him losing the tag altogether to become head coach and the team cutting ties with Udoka in February 2023 --  as the Celtics stood atop of the Eastern Conference. Another run to the Finals seemed likely until they ran into the Miami Heat again and were eliminated in seven games.

Still, Mazzulla has shown nothing but gratitude for being given the role of Celtics head coach in the midst of controversy and scandal even when many didn't agree he was ready to take on, but has since proven otherwise. He also was appreciative of working under Udoka in their one season together.
"You look at guys and coaches around the league who don't get experiences working for multiple head coaches.," Mazzulla said of Udoka in his postgame comments Thursday. "And so now that I can sit here today, I'm grateful that I got to work for him. I'm grateful that I got to see another way to do things because I was with Brad [Stevens] for three years, I think, and that was the only experience I had had in the NBA. So if I don't get that opportunity to work for another coach, who's worked for multiple coaches, who's been on benches for championships, who's been in San Antonio, Philly, other stops, then I don't get to see how the league works and looking at it from a different perspective. 

"I'm grateful for that year because I got to see a different approach. And I kind of compare it to the year I played for [Coach John] Beilein and the couple years that I played for [Bob] Huggins [at West Virginia]. They were two really good coaches and, on the outside, they seemed to have very contrasting styles. But they're similar in the way they coach the game or defense, how they look at defense, how they look at offense. So I kind of compare it to that, is where I got to see two really good coaches do it different ways and combine my philosophy with theirs and try to make something of my own."
Jayson Tatum calls the upcoming matchup "weird," even though he has let it be know that Udoka was his favorite coach to play for. The All-Star admitted to still keeping a relationship with his former coach.
"I saw Ime a couple of times this summer. That's somebody I got a really, really good relationship with. Talk to him all the time," said Tatum told NBC Sports Boston. "I'm happy for him that he's gotten this new opportunity. I think they're going to see a lot of improvement with that team, right? They got some new talent, some new guys, so that helps.

"Playing against him is going to be a little weird. It's going to be the first head coach that I've had to play against that I had. So it's going to be different."
Other than Tatum and Mazzulla, it'll likely be emotional for others like Jaylen Brown and Derrick White to name a few. Just ask now former Celtic Marcus Smart about the kind of influence Udoka had on that 2021-22 roster and still can be seen today for a team with championship aspirations.
"Ime is great. Obviously, under the circumstances, we didn't get to give it another run and it really showed," Smart told Andscape recently. "For somebody as a first-year head coach to come in and take the team that he had with Boston, not only to the Finals, but halfway through the season be right at .500 and then take the team to the Finals, that's not really heard of too often. And we got to give him his credit right there ... we were expecting after a full [season] under [Udoka], we can do this again and we can really get into it. And we just didn't get that chance. And when you get a taste of something like that, it's hard not to want it. And then when you don't get it anymore it's like, 'Dang, what happened? What could have happened?"
Today Udoka has yet a second opportunity to turn another franchise around, as he has the Rockets at 19-18 (ninth best record in the West) -- after coming off a close win in Detroit Friday -- and they're no longer the laughing stock of the Western Conference or the league, even with a much younger roster than he had in Boston two seasons ago.

The Celtics, a league-best 29-9, look to wash out that awful taste of their worst loss of the season to Bucks by defending their perfect 18-0 record at TD Garden, when they host Udoka and the Rockets tonight in a 7:00 pm ET tip-off -- whether it'll be awkward or not is anyone's guess.

Joel Pavón

Photo used courtesy of Getty Images

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