For Ime Udoka, the standard for how to treat players was set in San Antonio, where one of the greatest collaborations between a coach and player in NBA history was on display.
Like the bond between Red Auerbach and Bill Russell, Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan operated as one. And even then it could get a little rough.
The Celtics coach broke into a laugh.
“Harder than anybody else for sure,” he said of how Popovich treated the franchise cornerstone. “We called them a married couple because once every year they would go through a divorce, go without talking to each other for a week.
“They’d go at it, but Tim was great because he allowed himself to be coached. The group followed suit. When you saw Pop on Tim, Manu (Ginobili), Tony (Parker) harder than the others, everybody else falls in line. Sometimes you’d see Pop going off in a film session, and then you look at the stats and Tim had 30 and 17 that night. He’s striving for perfection. But credit to those guys also because they’re high-character individuals who allow themselves to be coached.
“The whole team and organization followed his example.”
Udoka is trying to set that critical baseline now in his first year as a head coach, so far without any hasty divorces.
“It hasn’t got there yet, but I’m sure it will, and that’s OK,” said Marcus Smart. “At the end of the day it’s coming from a good place, where you’ve got two competitive guys. Ime used to play — he gets it, he feels it, he understands it. He’s still a competitor at heart.
“Me and Ime have had our differences, nothing crazy. Nothing to the point where we wouldn’t talk to each other.”
But they came close the night of Dec. 3 in Salt Lake City, when Udoka abruptly pulled Smart out with eight minutes left in the second quarter. Two minutes later, after resetting his emotions, Smart checked back in and tip-dunked over Rudy Gobert on the way to a 15-point, three-trey, four-steal performance.
“He takes me out, he sits me down. I was a little upset. He talks to me. Well, he really didn’t say much,” said Smart. “Wasn’t playing too well, he takes me out and sits me down. Didn’t say much to me. Two minutes later, it’s go back in. That’s how it is.
“You feel that, and Ime, first year in, it was all coming from a good place. You want a coach to be like that. Sometimes you need a little extra kick — we all do. Even me. Some days we have other stuff outside of basketball that we deal with personally. It affects us sometimes on the court, and then you need that little kick.
“When you have a coach that’s willing to hold you accountable, and hold everyone accountable, the respect goes through the roof. You just want to go out and play as hard as you can.”
Beware of what you ask for
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Smart all knew Udoka from their time in USA Basketball, and as the first-year coach noted on the first day of training camp, all had asked him to coach them “hard.”
None necessarily understood what that meant leading up to those first practices after growing up under the gentler hand of Brad Stevens. But Smart found out quickly after getting caught in that annual headache known as Boston Marathon traffic and missing the first flight of the Udoka era to Orlando for an exhibition game.
Though Smart scrambled to Orlando on time to play, he was suspended for the second game of the trip in Miami. Even the longest-tenured Celtic wasn’t going to be exempt from the rules.
“I didn’t take it as nothing. I missed the plane — the marathon was going on, and caused a lot of stuff I couldn’t control, but at the end of the day still gotta make that plane,” said Smart. “I was fine with the suspension, as long as that’s how it happens for everybody. Once a coach shows you that, you can live with that. To this day I’m fine with it. It’s over with, on to the next one.”
The rules are ironclad, regardless of status. As during a Dec. 18 game against the Knicks, when a frustrated Udoka called a timeout following a Knicks run and unloaded on his players, the fury can be felt by everyone — but especially his stars.
“I think the straightforwardness, probably,” Udoka said of what may have caught some on the team by surprise this season. “You point things out. And they’re all receptive to it. It’s not like I’m saying it to one guy and not saying it to others.
“I honestly try to point it out to Jayson and Jaylen and those guys more than anybody because their growth is most vital for our team, and they have the ball in their hands and the respect and command to do those things,” he said. “You lose the respect of the room at times when you’re only going at certain guys but not saying stuff to the superstars.
“I’ve seen that in situations I’ve been in as a player and coach. My main thing is I let everyone know that’s equal opportunity as far as that from Day 1. They are receptive to it. We have no egos or low-character people that mind getting called down from the group. It is what it is and they respect that.”
Udoka was self-conscious enough about his irate timeout during the Knicks game that he later told players he didn’t want to be so harsh.
“He laid into us good. And that’s what good coaches know they need to do sometimes,” said Josh Richardson, who scored a season-high 27 points that night. “We were bleeding. We needed to stop it and it wasn’t happening so we sat down and he let us have it, as he should have.
“I think that was a good moment for him going forward. He kind of said in the locker room, ‘I don’t want to have to do that.’ But I was like, ‘Nah, nah. We needed that.’ I said that in front of everybody: That was good. We needed that.”
To flip or not flip that table
Udoka, though, is still searching for balance when it’s time to pull someone aside for a good talk.
“Coaching them hard is two things — it can be accountability or me coming in flipping over tables and all that,” he said. “I’ve been patient with the group in general, knowing that it’s a new coaching staff philosophy, it’s different from what it’s been the last seven years, and knowing that habits are hard to break.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but you see the incremental progress here and there. We really focused on defense early, but I was also wise enough to know that we had a bunch of guys missing early. The first few games were not indicative of who we were going to be with the lack of continuity. We looked at those first five games as an extension of preseason, got Al (Horford) and Jaylen back, and once we forged our identity defensively, we could shift to more offensive things. It’s a process for sure.
“I’ve been patient with it. My staff knows me well, well before I got here. Coaching hard could be keeping them accountable every day, continuing to reiterate those things. And then there’s times where you have to go off, and I’ve done that as well.”
And with practice, he may actually be getting better at it. When the Celtics returned from a dismal 1-4 western road trip, Udoka called them into the video room — more like a small theater — their first day back at the Auerbach Center.
His staff had produced a video consisting mainly of opponents like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and Donovan Mitchell scoring lots of open buckets, disrespecting the paint as if the Celtics were traffic cones.
The players knew they deserved the horror show. But was Udoka going to pull off his presentation with the proper mix of force and clarity?
“It sucked but it was refreshing at the same time,” said Smart. “Nobody wants to sit through and watch what they already know is horrible.
“You sit there and watch it again, and then get it critiqued in front of everybody. That’s tough. But at the same time it’s helpful,” he said. “The camera doesn’t lie. When that type of adversity hits, where you have to sit there and be uncomfortable for awhile, it only benefits you.
“We loved it. We loved it. Probably not at the moment. But it probably showed in the Milwaukee game how much we appreciated it. Once again that little kick we needed, especially coming off a road trip where we expected to do good and didn’t do so well. That can definitely be demoralizing to you. He did what he was supposed to do — we saw our mistakes, and also what we did right. We saw a plan we have to follow to do what we have to to be consistently right, and it had an effect with the way we went out against Milwaukee.”
The Celtics responded with their second win of the season over the Bucks, this time with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor.
Udoka wasn’t joking when he recently referred to Duncan, Parker and Ginobili as “the Boy Scouts.” All had their moments of getting “Popped,” as much as he loved them like sons.
But this is where Udoka has started his relationships with Tatum, Brown and Smart, with a goal, above all, to be honest.
“You build the relationships and win those titles, you can go at them however you want,” he said of the old Spurs stars. “Once a year they would not speak to each other for three or four days, and then they would come back around.
“We knew that was coming at points, but to Pop’s credit he would say I am who I am. I’d like to be John Wooden, but that’s not me. You have to be who you are, and our group is very receptive to coaching hard.”