Ime Udoka shows his value in Celtics Game 6 win with savvy moves on and off the court | brian robb

MILWAUKEE — The Celtics core of Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have taken their fair share of lumps in the postseason through their career in Boston. There was Game 7 in 2018 in which a horrific shooting night cost them a chance of arriving at the NBA Finals ahead of schedule against the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2020, Danny Ainge claimed he thought the Celtics were the ‘better’ team after Boston dropped the East Finals in dramatic fashion to the Heat after a host of fourth quarter collapses.

Boston’s Game 5 loss against the Bucks on Wednesday night probably was a top-10 defeat in franchise history, potentially even top-5 given the stakes at hand. These Celtics have a tremendous chance to make the NBA Finals with the way they are playing this year and the injuries that have hit other contenders in both conferences. A blown 14-point lead in Game 5 fell in line with what we’ve seen for years from these core Celtics in big spots though in the past with the team’s tremendous potential falling short when it matters most.

Ime Udoka was hired by Boston in part due to his connection to Boston’s top trio through Team USA and that value was shown firsthand in the aftermath of Game 5. Udoka walked a fine line between acknowledging the lost opportunity but highlighting the fact the Celtics still would be able to right the wrong. There would be no time for panic, just a chance to focus on redemption if the Celtics wanted to get over the hump.

“We had the right resolve,” Udoka said. “We talked about it after that game. Let an opportunity slip away but we still have a chance to make it a better story. We felt good going into it because we played so well for 3-and-a-half quarters. Everybody’s pissed off before the game. I said everybody was pissed about the outcome, but we knew how well we played throughout the series and let some things slip away. Never any doubt or hangover from that game. We put it to bed the next day.”

That mentality is one thing that benefitted the Celtics as the team’s best players came out aggressive in Game 6, finding and making high-quality looks, specifically from beyond the arc. However, there was far more to the Celtics’ tremendous Game 6 win than keeping Boston’s top talent with the right mindset from the head coach. Udoka made a number of key moves over the course of Game 6 to help ensure Boston would win the first road elimination game for the franchise since 2013.

Using Tatum as a decoy once he got hot: The All-Star put on an all-world performance in the fourth quarter with 11 straight points at one stage of the frame to help Boston hold off a Bucks comeback. Logically, the Celtics would keep going to the red-hot Tatum until the finish line but the Bucks’ made a key adjustment midway through the quarter to try to slow him down: Put Jrue Holiday on him for one of the first times all series long .

That left Jaylen Brown with a weaker defender (Wesley Matthews) and the Celtics used that fact and Tatum’s dominance to their advantage out of a timeout midway through the fourth quarter. The play looks like it’s a Tatum post up on the block with Smart selling an entry pass. However, after setting a screen for Tatum, Brown gets a double screen from White and Horford that works perfectly on the weak side. Smart finds him for a wide-open 3 at the top of the key, Brown hits and pushes Boston’s lead back out to 11 with five minutes left, giving the Celtics a double-digit lead they would hold onto the rest of the game. Udoka’s ability to key the Bucks’ defense on their toes helped Boston avoid some of their Game 5 mistakes in the win with playcalls like this.

Sticking with small lineup despite Game 5 rebounding woes: Grant Williams has been an offensive mess for the last four games (2-of-12 from 3-point range) which has been a trouble spot for Boston’s starting lineup. Williams has great value as a defend on Giannis but Udoka leaned heavily in the small lineup in Game 6 once again, sticking with Derrick White for 30 minutes off the bench. The Celtics were rocked on the defensive glass in Game 5, but instead of over adjusting, Udoka got the Celtics to simply do a better job with their smaller size, limiting the hosts to seven offensive boards despite the Bucks only shooting 40 percent from the field . The Celtics held their own on that front and got to reap the offensive benefits from White (9 points) in the process.

Not letting Bucks supporting cast get going at home: Antetokounmpo had a monster night but outside of Pat Connaughton (14 points) the Bucks got no other major offensive help beyond fellow star Jrue Holiday. Role players can get hot at home but Udoka clearly prioritized ensuring Boston’s defenders stayed home on Milwaukee’s shooters more than throwing double teams at Antetokounmpo. It hurt for one box score line but the Bucks supporting cast went a combined 0-of-13 from 3 for players not named Giannis, Holiday and Connaughton. That type of lockdown defense and strategic execution is a big reason why the Celtics will be playing a Game 7 on Sunday.

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