Celtics still eyeing return to Finals despite Udoka scandal
The Celtics ended last season in the spotlight for all the right reasons.
A team seemingly stuck in the mud for multiple years recovered from a slow start to make a surprise run to the NBA Finals led by homegrown talents Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Behind it all was rookie coach Ime Udoka, who emerged as the leader of a new era for a franchise that seemed closer than ever to raising an 18th championship banner.
That was before Udoka was suspended for the upcoming season after a months-long investigation by a law firm found multiple violations of team policies. A person with knowledge of the matter told The Associated Press the violations were related to an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the organization. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because the details were not made public.
In an instant all the talk of the Celtics’ potential on the court was obscured by scandal.
It has left a team that came two wins from an NBA title to process how things have changed over the past month, and also to somehow refocus as it tries to capitalize on its finite championship window.
“You come into this season, you feel a certain way. Coming off last year you’re excited and you’re trying to do all these things. It’s a lot, if I’m being honest,” Tatum said. “I think what I’m looking forward to most is just playing basketball.”
The man tasked with helping this team thrive is interim coach Joe Mazzulla, a Udoka assistant. A holdover from the staff of former coach Brad Stevens before he moved into his new role as president of basketball operations, Mazzulla is not only a familiar face but someone the players openly lobbied for Udoka to keep around.
He’s planning to build on those relationships, while building on the successful on-court culture Udoka established.
“I’m in a fortunate situation because I’ve been here for three years and we’ve had the offseason to kind of prepare for what we wanted to do heading into the season,” Mazzulla said. “There’s not much to change at all. It’s just about learning from last season and how we get better. … Just kind of moving forward one day at a time.”
He’ll try to do it with a core that is mostly intact. Robert Williams III will likely miss the first few months of the season as he recovers from surgery to repair torn cartilage in his troublesome left knee.
Free agency pickup Danilo Gallinari is also likely out for the season after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while playing for Italy during a FIBA World Cup qualifier this summer.
One thing Mazzulla made clear this preseason is the team's playing style won’t change much from last season.
“We had our struggles early last season, but at our best we knew what our identity was,” Mazzulla said. “It was our buy-in from a defensive standpoint. And it was sharing the ball and moving quickly on the offensive end. So as much as we can stick to the things that we were great at last year, and then find small areas to improve along the way is the way to go.”
READY TO SACRIFICE
As much as reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart has been the defensive heartbeat of the Celtics during his tenure, one of the persistent criticisms of him has been his inability to create opportunities for his teammates late in games.
The addition of veteran Malcolm Brogdon this offseason appears to be an attempt to address that.
But Brogdon said he’s here to support, not replace Smart on a team he believes is the most talented he’s played with.
“I came from a team where I was the second leading scorer. Guys know that. They know what I can do. They know what I did," he said. "So to come here and be able to sacrifice and turn down shots to get a better shot, or to set these other guys up — that shows a lot. ... At this point in my career my goal is to win.”