Things haven’t gone super smoothly for Ime Udoka during his first season as coach of the Boston Celtics. Nearly midway through the season, the Celtics are three games below .500 (18-21) and they currently sit outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. On Thursday night, the Celtics blew a 25-point lead to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, and lost the game, 108-105, after RJ Barrett sank a contested triple at the buzzer.
Boston’s collapse in New York wasn’t an anomaly. The Celtics have blown four separate leads of at least 19 points this season, which is the most in the entire NBA, and after the loss to the Knicks, Udoka called out the team as a whole for handling adversity poorly.
“I think it’s a lack of mental toughness to fight through those adverse times,” Udoka said, via ESPN. “To your point, it’s across the board. It’s a turnover here, a bad shot here, a missed defensive assignment here, and several missed rebounds tonight. So it’s a lot of different things. And then, like I said, a calming presence to slow it down and get us what we want is really what you need at that point. And sometimes we all get caught up in it.”
The Celtics scored just 42 total points in the second half against the Knicks on Thursday night, and they appeared to play tighter as the Knicks started to chip away at Boston’s substantial advantage on the scoreboard. Shots weren’t falling for the Celtics, while the Knicks — and especially Evan Fournier, who exploded for a career-high 41 points — seemed to hit everything on the other end.
“It’s guys getting rattled when it’s not the end of the world,” Udoka added of the Celtics’ struggles. “You still have a 12-point, comfortable lead, and you gotta end that run. We have to understand time and score, and we need a solid shot and not just get caught up in the game. You have to play the game different in the first quarter than the fourth quarter. Different when the team is going on the run and when you’re getting stops and getting out running.”
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Some of this obviously falls on Udoka, who is experiencing some legitimate growing pains as a rookie head coach. If a team is consistently having trouble getting good looks down the stretch of games, it’s up to the coach to settle things down and put his players in a position to succeed. Clearly, Udoka hasn’t done that well. Plus, his offensive approach shows a lack of imagination at times, with many possessions built on isolations and 3-point attempts.
It’s not all on Udoka, though. Boston’s roster is inherently flawed as currently constructed. It lacks floor-spacing and high-level point guard play, and in turn the team is overly reliant on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — two players that operate in a similar manner on the offensive end. Both players are extremely talented, but they haven’t proven to be ideal complements for each other. Often, it looks like they just take turns playing one-on-one against their defender on the offensive end.
Boston has been hesitant to trade either player, but it might be time for the team to at least consider shaking things up in a major way. Otherwise, there’s no immediate answer for Boston. It’s never a good sign when a coach is publicly calling out his team.