NBA Execs, Coaches: Celtics Players Had to ‘Get Their S*** Together’

From left, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Grant Williams of the Celtics

Getty From left, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and Grant Williams of the Celtics

BOSTON — The Celtic turnaround is getting high notice around the NBA these days. From a team that was three games under .500 in January to one that was two games away from an NBA championship heading into Game 4 of the NBA Finals against Golden State Friday night.

But from here, it’s been interesting, too, to hear the turnaround in opinion of Ime Udoka from people around the league. While no one was ever questioning the coach’s character or hard work on his path to leading the Celts, his performance in the No. 1 chair on the bench after nine years as an assistant was being regularly criticized in private conversations.

The Celtics were floundering through November, December and the start of January, and the regular underachievement reflected on Udoka, to some. But after getting more comfortable in the new role and setting the bar for the club, the season has been a steep upward trajectory.

“The players had to get their [expletive] together,” one opposing coach told “And they did. They started to guard — and I think Ime’s a good coach. I know he’s a good guy, and I think he’s a pretty good coach.

“It takes a while to get good at this [expletive]. It doesn’t just happen because you move over 12 inches. It doesn’t mean it works. It takes time for someone to figure out who they are in that role.”

Said another league exec, “I think Ime’s the right coach for that group, but it comes down to the players. It always comes down to the players.

“First, you have to have guys who can play, and they do. I think they’ve got guys who just realized, ‘Actually, this winning [expletive] is a lot more fun than what we were doing early on. You know, let’s keep doing that.’ The right guys are getting shots. The other guys are playing out of their [expletive] minds coming off the bench. So, like, ‘This is pretty good. Let’s do this again. Let’s do this again tomorrow.'”

Speaking of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, he said, “The two of them are really, really smart, which is a really, really good thing and a really, really bad thing. Sometimes being smart doesn’t help guys, but it happens to be helping those two guys now. They’re smart enough to be able to figure that they can get it done together.”

Hockey Legend Sees NHL Tough Guys in Draymond Green

We joked on Twitter that these NBA Finals were bearing some resemblance to hockey, what with the physical nature of the Celtics-Warriors matchups and Golden State’s Draymond Green at his agitating best in Game 2.

So we decided to check in with old pal Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, who retired from the ice in 1992 and still holds down the No. 9 position on the NHL’s all-time penalty minutes list.

“Does he remind you a little bit of Bill Laimbeer?” said Nilan, who grew up in Boston and now lives near Montreal, where he had his greatest success with the Canadiens. “You know, as far as the nonsense, right?”

He agreed when Green was compared to former NHLers Dale Hunter and Claude Lemieux.

“Whatever talent those guys have — and they do have a lot of talent — they don’t care,” Nilan said, bringing those two, Green and others of that style together. “They have a certain personality that, hey, I have talent, but along with it comes my personality. And they like that. They like being the bad guy. They know it has an impact on the game. They know it has an impact on the outcome — sometimes in a positive sense, and sometimes in a negative sense. They can screw your team, too, with some of that stuff.”

Now hosting the new and growing Raw Knuckles Podcast, Nilan still keeps tabs on the Celtics from Canada.

“I want to see the Celts win because certainly I’m from Boston. I think I was a lot more into it back in the ’80s when they were going up against the Lakers and the Pistons. That was just incredible basketball,” he said. “But I love seeing what the Celts are doing now, that re-emergence of Celtic basketball. And I love when they play defense. They’re tough to play against when they’re on the same page defensively.”

True enough, during the fourth quarter of Game 3 when the Celtics were in the process of holding the explosive Warriors to 11 points in the period, he was texting, “Defense. Defense. Robert Williams, what a game.”

Part of Nilan’s appreciation for basketball comes from his own experiences with the game.

“I played hoop with my friends from down in the schoolyard a little bit,” said the sturdy 6-footer. “My friends from Fallon Field had me playing in the BNBL (Boston Neighborhood Basketball League) one summer, and I was [expletive] brutal. I was a pretty athletic kid, but we played against these guys and I was like, ‘What am I doing out here? Like, stick to hockey.’ They were blowing by me like it was nothing.”

NBA Giving No Special Attention to Green

It’s fair to say the league — and, by extension, its referees — have been keeping an eye on the very active Mr. Green. But, according to sources that spoke with, there is no more focus on him than anyone else.

“You know how Draymond plays,” said one source. “But you know how everyone plays. It’s part of being prepared. Every game’s a new game, and you don’t prejudge anything. Certainly everyone’s aware of what’s happened before, but once the game starts, the officials in this league are too busy focusing on what’s in front of them in a very fast and physical game to be thinking of anything else.”


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