After falling short in the Finals, Boston Celtics look to go one further as Udoka scandal looms

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 10:  Jayson Tatum #0 and Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics walk off the court against the Golden State Warriors during Game Four of the 2022 NBA Finals on June 10, 2022 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

Having recovered from a sluggish start prompting fake trades aplenty, agitated fans and criticism, the Boston Celtics were two wins from their first NBA title in 14 years under first-year head coach Ime Udoka. He’s been given a year-long suspension after news of an inappropriate relationship broke last month, and now there are more doubts. How will they manage now?

Bullish Boston look to prove last year was no fluke

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 2: Head Coach Joe Mazzulla of the Boston Celtics speaks with the members of the team during the game against the Charlotte Hornets on October 2, 2022 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Udoka’s assistant Mazzulla will take interim charge this upcoming year – but will they improve? 

Led by homegrown tandem Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the C’s rallied from an iffy start while leaning on their defensive talents en route to a surprise NBA Finals run.

Sure, they were taken to the brink by an injury-plagued Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat in consecutive series, but held firm under duress. Their success was no accident.

Their first-year Ime Udoka swam through deep waters alongside them, emerging as the leader they’ve craved after Brad Stevens stepped into the front office as president.

Now though, just before preseason began, they were plunged into unforseen uncertainty again as news broke confirming Udoka’s year-long suspension after a months-long investigation by a law firm found multiple violations of team policies.

The full details may not come to light for a while yet, though Udoka’s inappropriate relationship with a female staffer surfaced online rather hastily.

Scandal aside, things have changed quickly and they’ve needed to refocus on their dwindling championship window – one seriously questioned by a reported Kevin Durant pursuit this summer after news of his trade request in Brooklyn. That, for the record, ultimately fizzled out.

Tatum, who took their six-game Finals loss by the Warriors harder than most, had his say:

“You come into this season, you feel a certain way. Coming off last year you’re excited and trying to do all these things. It’s a lot, if I’m being honest. I think what I’m looking forward to most is just playing basketball.”

Udoka’s assistant Joe Mazzulla is taking interim charge of the head coaching role this season, another inexperienced head but importantly one held in high esteem by those across the franchise – and one held over from the latter stages of Stevens’ coaching stint.

“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. There’s not much to change at all. It’s just about learning from last season and how we get better… just moving forward one day at a time.”

He made sure to stress their playing style won’t change much from last season, discussing their defensive buy-in and ball movement in attack.

“We had our struggles early last season, but at our best we knew what our identity was – our buy-in from a defensive standpoint.

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.”

Their core group are mostly the same, though important big man Robert Williams III will miss the first few months as I wrote after undergoing surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee.

Danilo Gallinari, a shrewd free agency signing, tore his ACL in a FIBA World Cup qualifier with Italy over the summer and is unlikely to feature this term.

Elsewhere…

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 5: Malcolm Brogdon #13 of the Boston Celtics passes the ball during the game against the Toronto Raptors on October 5, 2022 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Brogdon, who averaged 19.1 points and 5.9 assists last year, is relishing his new surroundings

Malcolm Brogdon, who spent his six years in the league playing for other Eastern Conference rivals, said when the choice was there, he picked Boston over Nick Nurse’s Toronto Raptors in prospective trade talks this summer citing a desire to win now as a key motivating factor.

He says he’s here to support, not diminish, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart as questions persist surrounding the latter’s playmaking abilities in late-game situations.

“I came from a team where I was the second leading scorer, guys know that and what I can do. They know what I did, so to come here, 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.”

That quote is significant, for a Celtics team that have endured their fair share of adversity in recent seasons.

While it feels like there will always be questions about how long the Tatum-Brown pairing lasts, especially after what felt like a telling offseason, the signs remain encouraging despite the outside noise.

Having more unselfish, quality players is never a bad thing in a conference improving all the time – especially as their championship window closes with the current core beyond those two.

Picture source: Getty Images — player quotes via Associated Press

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