Remember when the Celtics were punks?
As Boston heads to Brooklyn with a 2-0 series lead in its NBA playoffs first-round series with the Nets, there’s an abundance of hope for the 2021-22 Celtics. But it didn’t start like this — far from it, in fact.
“I said that’s as ugly as it can get. One thing I can’t stand as a coach is to get punked out there, and I felt they came out and punked us, outplayed us, played harder than us, all the things we talked about,” head coach Ime Udoka said after his team was booed off the floor in a 32-point loss in the home opener versus Toronto way back in October.
It’s still too early to plan any parades for June, and it hasn’t been perfect between October and now. But any and all lingering questions about Udoka’s aptitude for this job are being answered in real-time. The first-year coach has acquitted himself quite nicely, not only absolving the growing pains but learning from them and moving forward.
The Celtics still have two games to win in order to send their division rivals packing, but it’s been an absolute masterpiece thus far in Udoka’s maiden postseason voyage. Nothing speaks to Udoka’s basketball brilliance more than the game plan he has cooked up for Nets superstar Kevin Durant, arguably the best offensive player in the game.
Durant is averaging 25 points per game so far, but he has had to work his ass off to score each and every one of those 50 points. Nothing has been easy, and it certainly hasn’t been efficient. Durant is 13-for-41 from the floor through two games and was especially brutal Wednesday night in Game 2. Durant went 4-for-17 and was held without a field on 10 second-half attempts.
Udoka should frame this visual representation of Durant’s second half and hang it in his office.
Of course, such a defensive effort requires full, committed and unwavering buy-in from the players. They are the ones who have to carry out the battle plan, and they certainly have done that so far. Given how this thing started — and even what it looked like last season — that’s no small feat.
Udoka’s no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is attitude has, by and large, worked. His team is committed. They are buying what he’s selling. Defensive prowess aside, both Games 1 and 2 have provided tangible examples of the group’s growth under the rookie boss.
The Celtics led by as many as 15 in the third quarter of Game 1, only to see Kyrie Irving and the Nets storm back to build a fourth-quarter lead of their own. Earlier in the season, Boston would have folded, pointed fingers and gone down with nary a whimper (remember the Knicks game?).
Instead, the Celtics picked themselves up and punched back with Jayson Tatum’s buzzer-beating knockout. Game 2 started with a predictable counter-offensive for Brooklyn which led by double figures for most of the first quarter and built the lead to 17 at one point in the first half … only for the Celtics to win the second half 59-42.
It’s wildly impressive stuff. Everyone involved deserves credit, too. We’ve given Udoka his flowers, and Brad Stevens deserves praise for what he’s done in his transition upstairs. Tatum and Jaylen Brown look like they’re finally taking the next step — and so on and so on.
Make no mistake: There’s still a long way to go before winning the series let alone making any real noise in the playoffs. But it has to be gratifying for those on Causeway to see the plan unfolding the way it has so far.
Or, put another way: The Celtics have become the ones doing the punking.