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In his first season as a head coach, former Nets assistant Ime Udoka has led the Celtics to one of the best half-season turnarounds in NBA history. And now he stands in his former team’s way, starting Sunday with Game 1 of the first-round playoff series at TD Garden.

“He’s a player’s coach. He played the game,” Kevin Durant said. “The NBA is a grind, so he understands the work you’d have to put in each individually.

“He’s played with some of the greatest players all time and under arguably one of the greatest coaches in any sport, so it’s a lot of knowledge he gained from there and was an assistant coach for so long. So he just went through the grind as a player and as a coach, and throughout that time, he just understood what winning basketball is like.”

After bouncing around as a player with the Lakers, Knicks, Trail Blazers and abroad, Udoka found a home as a glue guy in San Antonio playing for Gregg Popovich, with whom he got his first assistant coaching gig in 2012. Then came a season with the 76ers, and another under Steve Nash on the Nets before finally getting his shot as head coach with the Celtics.

Ime Udoka
The Celtics went from under .500 in late January to second in the Eastern Conference.
Getty Images
Ime Udoka
Ime Udoka spent the 2020-21 season with the Nets before the Celtics hired him to be their head coach.
AP

“I got to know him pretty well. He’s a real cool dude,” Nic Claxton said. “He’s doing a phenomenal job especially with them having a rocky start and them coming back [after] the All-Star break. … That’s dope. I’m happy for him. He’s a good guy. But we’ll be ready for him.”

The Celtics were still under .500 (23-24) after a Jan. 21 loss to the Trail Blazers before closing the season on a 28-7 run. They somehow climbed from as low as 11th — and out of the play-in — to finish second in the Eastern Conference.

“He’s done a great job over there in Boston. Ime’s a great coach,” Bruce Brown said. “He just got them to connect and come together and play as a team. Ime’s such a great guy. I loved when he was here. He helped me out a lot. He talked to me a lot. He’s just a great coach, just gave me confidence, knowing what I need to do watching film, just everything.”

When Udoka was a virtual defensive coordinator with the Nets, players raved over how genuine he was. And the Celtics responded to his defensive teachings, ending up No. 1 in the league. Of course, finally getting healthy helped.

“Yeah, he’s done a great job for sure,” Nash said. “Having said that they’ve had the longest run of health that group’s had for four or five years. So I think that’s part of it too.

“Last year I think [Jaylen] Brown was out in the playoffs, [Robert] Williams was in and out a lot. Obviously they added pieces like [Al] Horford and a few others. So part of it is their staff did a great job, but part of it is they finally have had a lot a long run of continuity. You get to see all their talent.”

Durant was asked about the impact of Jackie Robinson, who broke the MLB color barrier 75 years ago Friday at Ebbets Field, a flagpole from which stands near the front entrance to Barclays Center at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenues.

“Yeah, somebody who stood in front of the whole conversation, pretty much took on everything himself as an athlete, as a black athlete in this country. And endured so many tough times as an athlete that historic today, still resonates with young athletes and older athletes and people in general,” Durant said.

“I mean, everybody in the world can relate to what he went through. So his impact is still being felt today, especially here in Brooklyn and New York City and places that he went through on his journey. So it’s good that we still honor him today.”

Source: NYPOST

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