No one viewed the Celtics as title contenders when Marcus Smart shockingly called out All-Star teammates Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for refusing to pass the ball after a November loss to the Bulls.
That moment has alternately been described as galvanizing and ill-advised, and now we have a clearer picture of the fallout, because both Smart and head coach Ime Udoka shed light on what happened behind the scenes.
Speaking to Jackie MacMullan of The Ringer, the Celtics coach revealed what he told Smart in the aftermath.
"It was nothing I hadn't said behind closed doors," Udoka told MacMullan. "But in this case, it was a player saying it publicly. And what Marcus was saying in that particular game was totally invalid. Jayson and Jaylen were drawing a lot of doubles and were making the correct pass each time -- including to Marcus -- who couldn't make a shot that night."
Udoka followed up with Smart that there were parts of his game that he needed to fix, too, but before addressing any of that, he'd need to make things right with Tatum and Brown, who didn't appreciate the public criticism.
"Ime told me, 'It's out, don't run from it,'" Smart told The Ringer. "'Those are your brothers and they feel hurt.'"
The comments rocketed across the NBA. Rival executives began openly speculating that the Celtics would be forced to blow up their core, with Smart likely the first to go. Instead, the conflict sparked a come-to-Jesus moment that helped address grievances that had festered for two years over accountability.
"We sat down as a team and got it all out there," assistant coach Damon Stoudamire told The Ringer. "Marcus made a statement, then the other guys said, 'OK, we hear what you are saying, but you need to be accountable too. You gotta take better care of the ball.'"
Change didn't come immediately, but it did come. Smart became a more focused facilitator. Brown and especially Tatum shared more readily. The Celtics recommitted to playing elite defense. By the time they won 28 of their final 35 games and roared into the playoffs, they were a completely different team.
"I had my own time frame in terms of changing habits and building a foundation," Udoka told MacMullan. "It wasn't the time to kick a chair or tip over tables a month or two into the season."