Ime Udoka Has Convinced the Celtics to Pass the Basketball

BOSTON — Ime Udoka has been emphasizing ball movement since the day the Celtics hired him as their coach. At his introductory news conference last June, Udoka apologized to Brad Stevens, his predecessor and the team’s newly appointed president of basketball operations, as a way of softening the blow before he pointed out that the Celtics had ranked near the bottom of the league in assists last season.

“We want to have more team basketball,” Udoka said at the time.

It was not instant fix for Udoka, whose team hobbled into the middle of January with a losing record. The ball was not moving. A bit of frustration was evident. But even during their struggles, Udoka sensed that his players were receptive to coaching, he said. So he reinforced his pass-first concepts in film sessions and by citing statistics that showed the offense was more potent when the ball zipped around the court.

“It took some time,” Udoka said on Wednesday, “but I think they’re embracing being playmakers and helping everyone else score, and I think it’s pleasing to me and noticeable when we play that way.”

Entering the N.B.A.’s All-Star break, the Celtics have resurfaced as one of the better teams in the league after winning 11 of their last 13 games, a run of solid play that has vaulted them up the standings, quieted a few of their critics and shown that Udoka’s sharing-is-caring formula can work in their favor.

The Celtics spent subsequent weeks wrestling with mediocrity — two wins here, three losses there — without much continuity. And they found themselves absorbing more barbs after a loss to the 76ers on Jan. 14. Joel Embiid, the 76ers’ All-Star center, stated the obvious: The Celtics were a one-on-one team. Embiid went so far as to compare them unfavorably to the Charlotte Hornets, whom the 76ers had played two days earlier.

“Charlotte, they move the ball extremely well and they have shooters all over the place,” Embiid told reporters. “Obviously, Boston is more of an iso-heavy team, so it becomes easier to load up and try to stop them.”

Perhaps it was a message that the Celtics needed to hear. Tatum, 23, and Brown, 25, are terrific players, each capable of torching a conga line of defenders by himself. And there are certainly times when they should take advantage of their matchups. But Udoka wants all of his players to avoid “playing in a crowd,” he said, and to exercise more discretion. Above all, he seeks balance: fast breaks, pick-and-rolls, ball reversals.

“We have a multidimensional team that can score in a lot of different ways,” he said.

Sure enough, the Celtics were rolling by the time they paid another visit to Philadelphia on Tuesday. Udoka delivered some pregame motivation by showing his players that old quote from Embiid — the one about them being “easier” to defend than the Hornets had been. “It stood out to me when he said it,” Udoka said.

The Celtics won by 48 points. Doc Rivers, the coach of the 76ers, spent the game looking as though he were in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“You can literally see the improvement of the ball movement,” he said. “The old Boston is more isos. This Boston is driving and playing with each other, and that’s what makes them so much tougher.”

The Celtics, who are also among the league leaders in defensive rating, made some savvy moves ahead of last week’s trade deadline by acquiring Derrick White, a versatile guard, and Daniel Theis, a defense-minded center.

As for the All-Star break, Udoka said he would spend time with his family. But he also plans to dive into film by revisiting the hard times.

“Really take a look at the struggles we had early,” he said, “and how we’ve turned the corner.”

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