Ime Udoka made it back to TD Garden for the first time since being suspended for the 2022-23 season, which eventually led to his firing by All-Star break last February.
Now coach of the Houston Rockets, Udoka's return was spoiled by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combining for 59 points in a lopsided 145-113 loss to the Celtics. But it was before the game that the 46-year-old spoke to reporters.
Udoka, who last stepped foot in the Garden back during Game 6 of the NBA Finals, discussed his biggest regret on his exit from a short tenure as head coach of the Celtics.
"Job not finished," Udoka said during his pregame presser. "The relationships you build and the people you impact. So that'd be the biggest thing. Formed a lot of relationships within a year and obviously want to get a chance to run it back with a group you feel you can build and grow with.
"So, letting people down. I talked about the players, the relationships I built with them, the coaches that came with me, and then everybody else that was impacted by it. So for me that's the biggest thing I would say overall is letting some people down, for sure. But we've talked it out and I've seen a lot of these people throughout the summer and talk regularly and so we move past it."
For Joe Mazzulla, the man that replaced Udoka as interim before being named head coach of the C's a season ago, it has been nothing but a positive experience getting an opportunity to now lead a franchise that just clinched regular season victory No. 3,600 -- the first team in NBA history to reach that feat.
"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."
It was Udoka that made the decision to retain Mazzulla -- an assistant under the previous Brad Stevens' regime -- when hired as the Celtics coach back in the spring of 2021. According to the now Rockets coach, it was the veteran players at the time that voiced their opinions that led to retaining Mazzulla on the staff.
"I would say I kept [Mazzulla] and Tony Dobbins, and they were two guys that were highly recommended, not only by the front office and people that were here but players, as well. And I took especially Marcus [Smart], Jaylen [Brown], Jayson [Tatum], and Al [Horford], the veterans; I took and heavily regarded who they liked and who they wanted to keep. And so, obviously, I didn't know much about them beforehand. Then, obviously, getting a chance to work with those two, Joe and Tony throughout the year got to know them."…In general didn't know a ton coming in other than good recommendations from players and coaches and front office, Brad [Stevens] specifically, and got to know him and see why he's having success here."
A huge reason the Celtics are currently a league-best 30-9 on the season, including being 19-0 at home, has been the growth of stars Tatum and Brown -- something Udoka praised when asked about their respective performances thus far this season.
"They've taken those steps in confidence, been there, done that," Udoka said. "I think going through that experience helps everyone across the board. So, some little things, I might have imparted some wisdom on them as far as that, and just their growth in general.
"It's a natural progression for those guys to become the All-NBA guys they are, and I think, for the most part, they're going to be perennial year to year. So, [I'm] happy for them, not surprised by their growth or success. Just a natural step for them, especially them being the leaders now. … The things I tried to preach to them, I think they've taken those to heart, and they continue to grow and are getting better and better."
Of course when it came to the subject regarding his suspension, Udoka addressed what now former players like Brown and Marcus Smart said on record about not knowing the details of the situation that led to the abrupt changing of the guard just one day prior to the start of 2022-23 training camp -- to which Udoka shut down with a simple candid response Saturday.
"I would say they lied to you guys," Udoka said. "They knew, or some of them knew. Obviously, if I had talked to them, they wouldn't share stuff publicly. So who needed to know, knew."
As for the game itself, Tatum dropped 27 points to go along with eight rebounds and five assists, before being ejected for picking up back-to-back technical fouls to start the fourth quarter. The All-NBA forward didn't reveal much on if he and Udoka spoke before or after the Celtics blowout win, other than he played as if this were any other game on the schedule -- especially coming off the worst loss of the season in Milwaukee.
"We got our ass kicked the other night. So, I wanted to bounce back from that," Tatum told reporters. "Did I want to win tonight? Yeah, I want to win every game we play. So, it wasn't like we're playing Ime and those guys, I really want to win. It was more like, I want to bounce back from last game."
Brown, who finished with a game-high 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting, including 4-of-6 from deep, spoke afterwards on comparing all three of coaching styles of Stevens, Udoka and now Mazzulla when it comes to the impact they have had on him throughout his career in Boston.
"Ime was great for us because we were kind of used to playing in Brad's system and Ime kinda made the system kinda around us, said Brown in his postgame comments. "It was see a play, make a play and he kind of designed everything around what we did and do best. It empowered us to make more decisions and it was great for our development.
Brad would think the game for you and Brad would prepare, make sure you called the plays. Ime was more like figure it out and empowered us to go play, go hoop and be who we are. It was different for us and it definitely helped us grow as basketball players. Now with Joe, he's expanded on that as well and it's like a combination of the two -- where it's like you're empowering us, but also we got to be the smarter, more prepared team. Every coach has different styles, but Ime was definitely a part of our development."
Despite Udoka being proud of his former stars in Tatum and Brown, he and the Rockets clearly had no answer for the duo allowing them to connect on a combined 20-of-32 from the field and 8-of-13 from long distance -- as they each played less than 30 minutes apiece.
"I didn't love our physicality and understanding how we made them a little too comfortable," Udoka said during his postgame press conference. "I would've loved for people to guard them the way we guarded them tonight when I was here."
In the end, much like the Garden crowd that met Udoka with a mixed reaction of cheers and boos, the Celtics have clearly moved on and that was evident in not only the victory but also their great start to the 2023-24 campaign that could end in hanging that elusive 18th championship banner -- which the team was only two games away from capturing two seasons ago.
"We had a good year, not great year. Didn't get it done," Udoka said when asked about walking into TD Garden prior to the game. "But yeah, I would say just seeing some people I haven't seen in a while, I obviously talked to. Then once it's done, it's done. A first time for everything. We've been through it and are ready to move on."
Photo used courtesy of USA Today
Photo used courtesy of USA Today