MIAMI -- Defense is his specialty, so Ime Udoka read what was about to unfold before it happened.
Inside the visitors' locker room at FTX Arena in the aftermath of the Boston Celtics’ gritty Game 7 triumph over the Miami Heat, Udoka spotted all of his players clutching water bottles and immediately pleaded that there was no need to repeat the water bath he received after his first NBA victory earlier this season.
Then the voice of Jayson Tatum, perched on his locker bench with the Larry Bird trophy for the Eastern Conference finals MVP below him, bellowed, "Man f--- that." And Udoka found himself under a deluge more severe than any of the rainstorms that Will Smith told us were nothing to mess with.
Maybe in a couple of weeks that water will be champagne. But it was telling that the Celtics elected to celebrate this particular milestone by mobbing the coach whose personality they have adopted during an improbable run.
Just like their coach, these Celtics have overcome every obstacle placed in front of them this season. And, like their coach, they did it with a touch of swagger and quiet confidence.
There were so many times this season could have unraveled. A catastrophic collapse inside Madison Square Garden in early January left the Celtics three games under .500 and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. Pundits raced to their soapbox in the aftermath to declare that the Tatum/Jaylen Brown duo needed to be split up because it would never work together.
Instead of splintering in that moment, the Celtics rallied together. And that unity -- along with a heavy dose of pushing from Udoka -- has carried them all the way to their first NBA Finals appearance in 12 years.
Decked out in their Eastern Conference champions swag, the core of Smart, Brown, and Tatum posed together outside the locker room after Sunday’s win. Smart posted the snapshot online with the caption, "Some said a split. We said a family."
Every time these Celtics have been counted out, including those wondering if this team could bounce back from letting Game 6 slip away in Boston, they’ve answered the bell. It hasn’t always been perfect -- and Jimmy Butler nearly hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds of a furious late-game rally -- but the Celtics survived. They just keep finding a way.
"We did all that on purpose to make it interesting," deadpanned Brown. "No, I'm just kidding. But that's us. We’ve been responding all year, all season to adversity. Today was the biggest test, not just of the year but of our careers, to mentally come into a Game 7 away after losing on our home court, which was tough, and we got it done."
For the Tatum-Brown-Smart trio, it was validation after the Celtics fell short in the East finals on three previous trips. Save for the 2018 playoffs when the trio were thrust into elevated roles due to injuries to Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, this was the first real opportunity for this core to be at the forefront of a playoff surge.
And they delivered Boston to the championship stage.
The only player that might have savored the moment more was Al Horford, who collapsed to the hardwood amid Boston’s postgame celebration. It had already been an emotional week for Horford but Sunday’s Game 7 win delivered him to a stage that had defied him throughout his career. The soon-to-be 36-year-old, who had played in 141 career playoff games, is headed to his first Finals after being tantalizing close three other times in his career.
"Just caught up, excited," said Horford. "A lot of hard work. I've been a part of a lot of great teams, a lot of great teammates, and I'm so proud of this group. These guys, I've seen JB come in the league, take steps, take levels. I've seen JT the same thing. I've seen Smart grow. For me it's just special to be with them and be able to help them and be a part of this. I'm really grateful to be in this position.”
This all seemed so improbable four months ago and that makes it that much sweeter for the Celtics. Udoka deserves much of the credit for keeping this team on task and knowing just how much he could push this core.
Our minds race back to March when, asked about the notion that he might have pushed his stars too hard early on, Udoka responded, "It was pointed out to me that challenging players publicly wasn't welcomed by everybody. Like I care.”
That’s why Brad Stevens hired Udoka (and Stevens deserves a column of his own for all the right moves he made in his first year in a new role). It was selfless of Stevens to identify that he needed a coach who push this core in a way that he simply couldn’t.
Udoka's tough love paid dividends as the Jays blossomed late in the season, finding new ways to impact the game beyond their scoring. It paid dividends when the Celtics were repeatedly tested on this playoff run. Every time it seemed like the season was slipping away, the Celtics dug in and made sure it didn’t.
Yes, the Celtics have rarely made things easy on themselves this season. Derrick White noted after Game 6 that, "If it was easy, it wouldn't be us." And that’s coming from a guy who missed most of the more harrowing twists and turns at the start of the year.
There is still work to be done. The Celtics need to be better next round than they were against Miami. And it won’t be easy turning around on short notice, flying to the west coast, and getting ready for a well-rested Golden State team that’s been on this stage before.
But Udoka has instilled a mental toughness in this team that wasn’t present at the start of the year. The Celtics, even with their bumps and bruises, will pack some swagger as they head west.
"Very confident going in," said Udoka. "We’re ready for the challenge."