NBA Finals: who is Ime Udoka, the coach who has revived the Celtics?
One of the youngest coaches in the NBA, 44-year-old Udoka has led the Boston Celtics to within two wins of only their second championship in 36 years.
The Celtics are back. Back in the Finals, in the elite, in the fight for the NBA title. Back in the titanic, epic struggle that’s their rightful place, back in a war they’ve waged on so many occasions throughout their history. Boston are two wins away from being crowned champions of the NBA and reclaiming a throne they’ve sat on no fewer than 17 times since the inception of a league of which they are founding members. They’ve lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy once since 1986, though. That’s a long time for a franchise of their calibre.
It’s a wait that serves to heighten the sense of achievement surrounding this year’s team. This championship series against the Warriors is the final exam to come through in a season which, whatever happens, will be an A+ campaign for the Celtics. Not only because of their historically good defending and the incredible turnaround they’ve pulled off, but because they’ve restored the franchise’s pride; once indomitable, it had waned in recent times.
Celtics on brink of NBA title just months after all seemed lost
And yet all had seemed lost at the start of the season, and in early January, when an 18-21 record left them well off the Playoffs and struggling to even make it into the Play-In tournament. A run of nine wins in a row between 29 January and 15 February changed things, however. Since, the Celtics have been flying: the best defence in the NBA; one of the best offences; a compact, unified group capable of overcoming any opponent and any obstacle. They’ve been the best team in the NBA this calendar year, finishing up the regular season with a half century of wins (51-31) and taking second place in the Eastern Conference, before sweeping aside the Nets and showing real resilience to beat the Bucks and the Heat in seven tough games.
Just a few months before all that, they were in a mess. It had become clear that Brad Stevens was incapable of controlling a locker room whose chemistry was broken, having been punctured by Kyrie Irving and finished off and for all in the Orlando bubble. Stevens was replaced as head coach after a dreadful season in which, after reaching the Playoffs via the Play-In, the Celtics fell to a heavy defeat to the Nets (4-1) in the first round. But he didn’t return to the University of Indiana; he instead moved into the front office, taking over as president of basketball operations from Danny Ainge, who had been too conservative, too stuck in the past. The coach’s position ended up being filled by Ime Udoka, a newcomer in a role of such magnitude - and the man who has piloted the Celtics back to the Finals.
Inexperienced Udoka has done miraculous job in Boston
Udoka has had a nomadic career. Born in Portland, Oregon, on 9 August 1977, the 44-year-old is one of the NBA’s youngest coaches, albeit he’s somewhat older than his predecessor, who arrived in the world’s best league at just 37. As a player, he endured an unremarkable career that saw him turn out for several teams and never get above 10 points per game. In 2012, he became particularly known to Spanish basketball fans when he joined Murcia, in Spain’s Liga Endesa. That season, los murcianos inflicted the pain of relegation on Madrid-based club Estudiantes on the final matchday of the campaign.
That was probably Udoka’s most inglorious moment as a player. The devastation of the Estudiantes fans turned into indignation when he paraded around the court with his thumbs pointing downwards, shouting “going down, going down”. The late Pedro Alarcón, Estudiantes’ head of security for 15 years, tried to rein him in, but it proved impossible. The Nigerian-American could not be stopped, humiliating his fallen rival in one of the most unseemingly episodes ever witnessed in Spanish basketball.
Udoka has left that well behind him. He was an assistant to Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich in the 2013 and 2014 Finals, then occupied the same role at the 76ers and the Nets, before being given his first shot at the top job at the Celtics. In Boston, he has revived the team with good defensive strategies, excellent rotations, exceptional post-time out plays, good responses to defeats and top communication with his players. He has helped establish Jayson Tatum as a star, Robert Williams as an elite defender, Marcus Smart as a point guard and Al Horford as the heart and soul of a team that has the look of champions. A team for whom the sky appears to be the limit in the years to come. Udoka has worked miracles at TD Garden.
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