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Celtics Notes: ‘Weird' Ime Udoka reunion looms amid schedule gauntlet

Celtics Notes: ‘Weird' Ime Udoka reunion looms amid schedule gauntlet originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

As if watching the Celtics slog through a lopsided loss in Milwaukee on Thursday night wasn’t painful enough — with Boston limping to the finish line of five games in seven nights and waving a rare white flag at halftime of that tilt — a wintry mix has most of us Boston beat writers stranded in The Good Land on Friday.

So here are a few thoughts from a busy stretch, with another spicy matchup waiting back home on Saturday (if we ever get there):

Tatum ready for 'weird' game as Ime Udoka returns to Boston

It’s been 575 days since Ime Udoka last stepped on the floor at TD Garden. (The Celtics lost Game 6 of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors that night.) It’s been 476 days since the Celtics suspended — and eventually dismissed — Udoka as head coach of the team.

On Saturday, Udoka returns to Boston as head coach of the Houston Rockets. Players have stressed throughout a sometimes awkward transition that they have maintained a relationship with their former coach, and before the season started, Jayson Tatum admitted to NBC Sports Boston that it will be "weird" to see Udoka on the opposite sideline.

"I saw Ime a couple of times this summer. That’s somebody I got a really, really good relationship with. Talk to him all the time,” said Tatum. "I’m happy for him that he's gotten this new opportunity. I think they're going to see a lot of improvement with that team, right? They got some new talent, some new guys, so that helps.

"Playing against him is going to be a little weird. It's going to be the first head coach that I've had to play against that I had. So it's going to be different.”

Celtics players will have to get past any emotions Saturday, particularly while trying to wash the bad taste of Thursday’s loss out of their mouths. No one knows the strengths and weaknesses of the Jays quite like Udoka.

Joe Mazzulla, who has thrived since taking the reins in Boston, offered praise for the experience he gained in his season on Udoka’s staff.

“You look at guys and coaches around the league who don’t get experiences working for multiple head coaches. And so now that I can sit here today, I’m grateful that I got to work for him,” said Mazzulla. "I’m grateful that I got to see another way to do things because I was with Brad [Stevens] for three years, I think, and that was the only experience I had had in the NBA. So if I don’t get that opportunity to work for another coach, who’s worked for multiple coaches, who’s been on benches for championships, who’s been in San Antonio, Philly, other stops, then I don’t get to see how the league works and looking at it from a different perspective.

"I’m grateful for that year because I got to see a different approach. And I kind of compare it to the year I played for [Coach John] Beilein and the couple years that I played for [Bob] Huggins [at West Virginia]. They were two really good coaches and, on the outside, they seemed to have very contrasting styles. But they’re similar in the way they coach the game or defense, how they look at defense, how they look at offense.

"So I kind of compare it to that, is where I got to see two really good coaches do it different ways and combine my philosophy with theirs and try to make something of my own.”

Lopsided loss spoiled Holiday's return to Milwaukee

There were a whole bunch of No. 21 Jrue Holiday Bucks jerseys in the crowd at Fiserv Forum on Thursday night. The team honored Holiday, a key piece of their 2021 title team, with a two-minute tribute video during a break in the first quarter.

The lopsided start prevented Holiday from watching much of it.

"A little bit. A little bit of it. We were getting our ass kicked, so I was kind of locked into the game trying to figure that out,” said Holiday.

Even after the Bucks unceremoniously dealt him before training camp to acquire Damian Lillard, Holiday smothered the team with kindness and expressed appreciation for seeing so many familiar faces back in Milwaukee.

The fact that Boston has emerged as the best team in basketball likely takes some of the sting out of being shipped out of Milwaukee just days after expressing a desire to finish his basketball career there. With these two teams seemingly on a collision course for a playoff showdown in the East, Holiday seems vital to helping the Celtics corral Milwaukee’s talented offense.

The JB rebound show

There wasn’t much time to linger on Boston’s tantalizing win over the Timberwolves on Wednesday night — particularly when news that Bill Belichick was parting ways with the Patriots dropped in the aftermath and dominated the local headlines.

One thing that shouldn’t get lost is how good Jaylen Brown was on the defensive end and, most notably, on the glass.

Brown finished a season-high 11 rebounds. Five of those came in overtime. What’s more, the NBA’s tracking data suggests that five of his rebounds were contested, well above his season average of 1.6 contested rebounds per game.

The Celtics don’t salt away that win without Brown’s activity on the glass and his work defending Anthony Edwards. NBA tracking had Edwards limited to seven points on 3-of-7 shooting with two turnovers in nearly 10 minutes of matchup time with Brown.

Edwards was 0-for-3 shooting when defended by Tatum, meaning he finished with seven points on 3-of-10 shooting overall against the Jays. Against all other defenders, he put up 20 points on 8-of-16 shooting.

Can we skip to the good part?

Having just finished a stretch of six games in 10 days, the Celtics launch into another stretch where they will play six times in 10 days, starting with Saturday’s visit from the Rockets and culminating with a back-to-back in Houston and Dallas on January 21-22.

Many strength-of-schedule calculations have Boston with the easiest remaining slate. Tatum had a hilarious response when that topic came up after the Minnesota game.

"I read somewhere that we have the easiest schedule remaining,” said Tatum. "I don't know when that s— is going to start.”

We don’t like chalking anything up as a schedule loss, but it’s hard to fault the Celtics for running on empty on Thursday night. This first stretch of six games in 10 days included matchups against three teams right behind them in the league standings (Minnesota, Oklahoma City, and Milwaukee) and the only non-travel between games was staying in Indy for a home-and-home where it’s extremely tough to win both ends.

Mazzulla showed up to his pregame press conference on Thursday wearing a Celtics hoodie with cut off sleeves as a tribute to Belichick. He even zinged this reporter with some Belichick-like responses in his pregame chat …

On the heels of the Celtics’ most lopsided loss of the season, we suggest Mazzulla takes a page out of Belichick’s playbook: Bury the game tape outside the Auerbach Center and move on.

We’re onto Houston. (If we ever get out of Milwaukee).