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 turnovers are down and the assists are up because we’re getting rid of the ball,” Udoka said.
He made that observation a couple of hours before the Celtics (34-26) had their nine-game winning streak snapped on Wednesday night by the Detroit Pistons, one of the worst teams in the league. It was the second game of a back-to-back for the Celtics, who had routed the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday and were without two injured starters, Marcus Smart and Rob Williams.
Still, the loss was a reminder that good habits need to be nurtured, and one the Celtics can stew over before they resume their season against the Nets next Thursday.
“There’s got to be an edge to us coming back,” the veteran forward Al Horford said, adding: “This is when the fun starts.”
It always takes time for new coaches to incorporate their systems, no matter how talented their personnel. Dwane Casey, the coach of the Pistons, knows the feeling. Before Wednesday’s game, he recalled landing his first head coaching job in the N.B.A., with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2005. Kevin Garnett, a colorful figure and a future Hall of Famer, made a habit of interrupting Casey whenever he tried to show the team a new play.
“It’s not easy,” Casey said. “You want to go in there with all these grand ideas, but you learn pretty quick that you’ve got to be flexible, that you’ve got to learn the players and they’ve got to get a feel for you.”
Udoka had to be just as patient in Boston, where the Celtics’ season was less than two weeks old when a loss to the Chicago Bulls dropped their record to 2-5. Afterward, Smart, the team’s starting point guard, used his platform at a postgame news conference to criticize Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the team’s top two players, for essentially hogging the ball.
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.”