The New York Knicks and Boston Celtics each sat at a dismal 18-20 season record heading into their Jan. 6 matchup. Although it was only one game, the matchup has come to define both of their seasons.
Leading by double digits at halftime, the Celtics were poised to run away with the game. But the Knicks fought back, tying the game with just 1:19 left. On the final play of the game, New York inbounded the ball to young star RJ Barrett, who banked in a 3-pointer at the final buzzer to propel the Knicks to a thrilling victory.
In my perfect world, the game turned around a choppy Knicks season and spurred a push to the playoffs while the Celtics faltered and missed the play-in tournament entirely.
Alas, we do not live in my perfect world.
In reality, the game had the opposite effect. The Celtics became a dominant force with the second-best record in the league after their loss to the Knicks, winning 33 of their 43 games down the stretch. Thus far, they are the only team to sweep their 2022 NBA Playoffs opponent. The Knicks, meanwhile, fell below mediocrity, going 18-25 to close the season. The difference in their success after this game is pronounced, and there is one main reason for it: the coaching disparity between the two teams.
Last season, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau deservingly won Coach of the Year. This season, though, he had a horrible year. After losing his mainstay Derrick Rose to an ankle injury, Thibodeau proceeded to start Alec Burks at point guard for the remainder of the season. At his best, Burks is a microwave scorer who can turn the tide of a game if he comes off the bench. However, most of the time, Burks barely fulfills his role as a point guard. He averaged just three assists per game this season, making it clear early on that he was not the guy for the job.
Worst of all, Thibodeau did have a guy for the job on his roster: promising young guard Immanuel Quickley. In his first significant playing time since March, Quickly averaged 16 points, five assists and five rebounds off the bench. Yet, Thibodeau opted to start Burks up to the last game of the season. That decision was a microcosm of his unwillingness to make adjustments.
On the other hand, Celtics Head Coach Ime Udoka made countless adjustments that shifted the course of the Celtics season, like his use of ascending big man Robert Williams. The Celtics have a multitude of capable defensive players, including point guard Marcus Smart, who recently became the first guard since Gary Payton to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. Yet, Robert Williams is Boston’s most important defensive player. Udoka recognized this, and it paid off for the Celtics. Williams is a menace on the interior, making opponents shoot 11.4% worse when attacking him at the rim. That defensive stat lands him within the top five in the league.
Soon after the Knicks’ loss, Udoka realized Williams was not near the rim often enough. He often guarded opposing centers, as teams forced Williams to switch on screens. As such, Udoka started instructing Williams to guard the worst offensive player on opponents’ teams. This allowed him to roam like a free safety off the ball. Without having to worry about his man, Williams became a complete eraser at the rim.
As a result, Boston’s perimeter defenders played with newfound aggression, helping Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Smart reach new defensive levels. The team has been incredible on the defensive end ever since, and this success has carried over into the playoffs. For example, Boston swept the much-hyped Brooklyn Nets without Williams for the first two games. They are now the second favorites to win the title behind the Warriors.
At times, NBA fans will belittle the value of coaching in the league. I disagree. The Celtics are winning in no small part thanks to Ime Udoka.
Unless you have a transcendent superstar at the peak of his powers, such as Giannis Antetokounmpo last year or LeBron James in 2016, coaching matters. The story of the Celtics and the Knicks this season — teams suffering opposite fates because of the men leading them — could not be a clearer example.
Tim Brennan is a sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. Around the Association appears online and in print every other week.