After dribbling out the clock in a 107-97 win over the Rockets Sunday night, Celtics wing Aaron Nesmith nonchalantly flipped the ball over his shoulder and let it bounce toward center court. But that ball wasn’t about to be left behind in Houston. Not on Timelord’s watch.
Rob Williams sauntered over from the bench toward the Rockets’ logo, eyes locked on the rolling rock as it found the hands of Grant Williams. Rob clapped his hands and called for the ball, which Grant delivered, and then carried it over to the scorer’s table where he presented it to Ime Udoka as a memento from Udoka's first win as an NBA head coach.
Smiling ear-to-ear, Udoka hung onto the ball tightly as Grant Williams came flying in for a chest bump. Jayson Tatum then strolled by, congratulating his coach with a handshake, while Udoka’s assistant coaches patted him on the back and shoulder.
When Udoka got back to the visitor’s locker room, the rest of the team was waiting for him with full cups and water bottles, ready to strike. Moments later, he was surrounded by his whooping and hollering Celtics family, who proceeded to drench him from head to toe.
“It’s special,” Udoka told the media after the game. “Got the water shower in there from the guys and the game ball. I told the guys, it’s overdue - it took too long to get it.”
It didn’t take that long. Three games to be exact. But it probably felt like an eternity from Udoka’s vantage point after starting off 0-2.
“I can only imagine being a head coach,” said Tatum, “first head-coaching job in the NBA, just to get that off your back, get the first one out the way. I’m sure it means a lot to him, his family. I'm happy for him.”
Tatum did his part to help Udoka get the ‘W,’ as he poured in a season-high 31 points.
Al Horford also came up big with a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds to go along with three steals and three blocks.
Dennis Schroder filled in for an injured Jaylen Brown, logging 18 points, five rebounds, and five assists.
And renowned sharpshooter Grant Williams matched Schroder's scoring mark while knocking down a career-high five 3-pointers, giving him a team-high of nine long-distance makes in 13 attempts this season.
Combining all of those efforts, Boston produced the level of competition that had been absent during Friday night’s 33-point loss to the Toronto Raptors.
“I would say overall, that’s who we are,” Udoka said of the toughness that the C’s displayed. “That’s who we’ve been in the preseason, and all the practices are spirited and competitive. So I look at that [loss to the Raptors] as more of an aberration than the norm.
“We got back to what we did tonight, which is compete at a high level, matched this young team’s energy and really shared the ball and defended well. So that’s what we’re looking for: consistency going forward. And we brought it well tonight.”
They wanted to bring it for their coach to prove to him that they have his back, just as he’s had theirs ever since stepping into their lives this past summer. And when the final buzzer sounded, they showed their love for Udoka through their actions.
"It was dope just because that's a historic win for him,” said Grant Williams. “That's his first of many and he's been a great, not only mentor to me, but a great coach and a great person since the moment he walked through the door. We all think highly of him and we're fortunate to have him here. So we just wanted to show him that love and that respect that he deserves as our head coach to get his first win in the NBA."
More important to Udoka than the win is the momentum that he hopes to build from it. He had his moment to celebrate, but now all he cares about is that the team carries its winning approach from Houston into Charlotte Monday night.
“It’s good to get a win, not just for the first, but to get us rolling on the right foot,” Udoka said. As for the memento that almost rolled away, “I may look at the ball someday. But it’s on to Charlotte now.”