Ime Udoka Had to Get Down and Dirty to Save the Boston Celtics Season

The Boston Celtics have gone from underachievers to one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Winners of 15 of their last 17 games, the Celtics have become the team many thought they would be. Jayson Tatum is playing like the $195 million star Boston expected, averaging 42 points in his last four games.

First-year head coach Ime Udoka pinpointed the exact moment when they went from pretenders to contenders.

Ime Udoka and the Boston Celtics have turned things around

Head coach Ime Udoka of the Boston Celtics looks on in the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on January 12, 2022, in Indianapolis, Indiana. | Dylan Buell/Getty Images.

The Celtics used a nine-game win streak right before the All-Star break to help the team break away from the .500 mark. It had been a frustrating year and a half for the Celtics, who finished last season at 36-36. The Brooklyn Nets bounced them in the first round of the postseason.

This year began the same way, but the frustrations started to boil over. Marcus Smart called out Tatum and Jaylen Brown for not passing the ball enough. Udoka questioned the effort of his team multiple times. A team with two young stars was stuck in mediocrity and seemingly had issues getting fired up.

Record-wise, things began to turn around for the Celtics after a Jan. 28 loss to the Atlanta Hawks left them at 25-25 more than halfway through the season. A victory on the road over the New Orleans Pelicans began Boston’s string of nine straight wins.

Since then, the Celtics have tasted defeat twice. They’ve looked like a brand-new team, with strong team defense as the catalyst. With 15 games left in the regular season, the Celtics are 40-27 and find themselves four games out of first place in a tight Eastern Conference race.

Ime Udoka had to get real with his Boston Celtics players

Although the Celtics began their win streak on that late-January game in New Orleans, they started to turn things around at the beginning of that month. Udoka knows exactly when the turnaround began, and it happened after a loss to the New York Knicks on Jan. 6.

RJ Barrett banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer as the Knicks escaped with a 108-105 win. That came on the heels of a two-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs when Brown botched a late layup. It was two tough losses that played with the psyche of the Celtics.

“We just pointed that out to the team yesterday,” Ime Udoka said Wednesday night, per MassLive. “Going 21-6 in those 27 since that game, we had lost back-to-back on a missed layup against San Antonio and then obviously giving up the big lead to the Knicks and Barrett hitting the game-winner at the buzzer. And so I challenged their mental toughness.”

Two nights after Barrett’s prayer was answered, the Celtics hosted the Knicks and held them to 75 points in a 99-75 win. Then came two straight wins over the Indiana Pacers. It was just their second three-game win streak of the season.

Not everyone was happy with Udoka calling out the team, but it’s paid off

Maybe that talk is what sparked Boston’s recent success. Since that loss to the Knicks, the Celtics have gone 21-6 and are playing some of the best basketball in the NBA.

Udoka said his talk was something not everyone wanted to hear. He said it was something that had to be addressed.

“Some people liked it, some people didn’t,” Udoka said. “The team responded as they have all year, and we really said just stop messing around and giving up these leads. We had lost two or three 19-point leads, lost some games to Cleveland, Milwaukee on Christmas, Chicago early in there, and then the New York game. So turning point as far as us getting tired of losing the games that we had built up leads.”

While the team has also gotten healthy, it’s buried some bad habits. The Celtics have shed that image of not being able to hold a lead. They’re more confident now, and it’s showing.

“I’ve mentioned quite a few times health, getting back healthy and having some consistency as far as lineups, but that was enough is enough as far as losing these leads and losing these types of games that we should win,” Udoka said. “So I got tired of it, the team got tired of it, we responded well.”

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