Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
Credit Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Ime Udoka won't have to look far Wednesday night to get an idea of how quickly a first-year head coach can make an impact on his new team.

Udoka will make his NBA head-coaching debut when the Boston Celtics visit the New York Knicks in the season opener for both longtime division rivals Wednesday night.

The Celtics and Knicks each qualified for the playoffs and made first-round exits last season. Boston finished 36-36, good for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, before falling to the Brooklyn Nets in five games.

New York went 41-31 and earned the fourth seed in the East before being eliminated by the Atlanta Hawks in five games.

While their seasons ended at the same time, the tenor of the early exit was far different for the Knicks than it was for the Celtics, who made the playoffs for the seventh straight season but were eliminated before the conference semifinals for the first time since the spring of 2016. Boston entered last season having made the Eastern Conference finals three times in the previous four years.

On June 2 -- the day after the Celtics were eliminated by the Nets -- longtime team president Danny Ainge retired, and head coach Brad Stevens was promoted to president of basketball operations.

Udoka, who played seven seasons in the NBA before serving as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, will preside over a remade team after being named the 18th head coach in team history on June 28.

Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier and Tristan Thompson, who combined to average 44 points per game last season, all exited. Al Horford, acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Walker, and free-agent signing Enes Kanter headline the new arrivals. It will be the second stint in Boston for both players.

Udoka acknowledged a brief four-game preseason -- the Celtics went 2-2 -- could increase the learning curve, especially with Horford and Jaylen Brown, the latter of whom finished second on the team with 24.7 points per game last season, on the COVID-19 list.

"Bringing in a new staff and some new personnel in general, it's going to take some time with the shorter preseason," Udoka said Monday. "We're looking at these first few games as well to build toward where we want to get to."

Tom Thibodeau's ability to get the Knicks to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 earned him NBA Coach of the Year honors. But the famously intense Thibodeau made it clear throughout the preseason that nothing short of New York's first title since 1973 will satisfy him.

A perfect Knicks preseason included a 108-100 win over the Detroit Pistons last Wednesday in which Thibodeau re-inserted the starting lineup -- including All-Star forward Julius Randle, who was nursing a bruised quad -- to preserve the victory in the fourth quarter.

"I'm not saying my way is for everyone -- I know my way is for me," Thibodeau said. "And everything matters to me, everything that we do."

The top five scorers from last season -- Randle leads a quintet that combined to average 80.7 points per game -- return for the Knicks, whose biggest offseason additions were two former Celtics.

Fournier signed a four-year contract as a free agent while Walker, a Big Apple native, signed with his hometown team upon being released by the Thunder following the trade from Boston.

--Field Level Media

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