During his first year as the Boston Celtics head coach, Joe Mazzulla hasn’t shied away from much.
After everything that occurred in the offseason with former coach Ime Udoka, no one would blame the new guy if he wanted to lay low this season. Mazzulla has resisted that. His personality and competitive nature (Mazzulla organizes staff-only pick-up games regularly) have bestowed a paradoxical perception. His strengths, a feisty and confident leader, are countered by his youth and inexperience.
As the Celtics faltered in early March, much of the ire was directed at Mazzulla. A year littered with praise has also come with its fair share of criticisms. Heading to the playoffs and the Celtic dropping to second in the East, there is confusion about whether Mazzulla can learn on the fly.
A college guard at the University of West Virginia, Mazzulla saw the game like a classic point guard. Floor generals that look at the court like a chessboard. Unlocking angles so pieces can move efficiently.
He started coaching in small colleges with Glenville State and then Fairmont State as an assistant coach. He climbed the ranks as a coach and eventually made his way to the Boston Celtics organization. It is uncommon for assistant coaches to stay with teams when the previous head coach is fired or has resigned. Mazzulla did. After serving as an assistant for Brad Stevens starting in 2019, he was kept when Udoka took over in 2021.
During the NBA Finals media sessions last year, Udoka revealed why Mazzulla was retained to ESPN, “[Mazzulla] is somebody that [the players] all worked with closely, believed in, and understood his upside.” Udoka added that there was a clear consensus to bring him back.
Celtics players, from star forward Jayson Tatum to veteran center Al Horford also co-signed Mazzulla’s bona-fides coming into the year. An under-reported aspect of Mazzulla’s rise was that he was in consideration for the Utah Jazz head coaching position. The role was eventually filled by another former Celtics assistant Will Hardy. Still, to be a candidate for that opening was a testament to Mazzulla’s stature in the league.
A Hot Start
Early, the incredible statistics and metrics for the Celtics played into Mazzulla’s analytical coaching persona. The Celtics started this season 21-5. They had a historically good offense and were surviving defensively without stalwart Robert Williams III. Mazzulla was fully in the honeymoon phase with fans. People who watched Mazzulla and the Celtics for the first time were asking themselves if Boston had stumbled upon an undiscovered savant.
Defiantly, the first-year coach proclaimed, “I love three-pointers. I like math,” after a game against the Washington Wizards. As some have questioned the Celtic’s reliance on the three-point shot, Mazzulla doubled down, stating he is not concerned about the volume. As it stands, the Celtics are second in the NBA in three-point attempts for the game.
When Boston had hiccups, Mazzulla stayed calm but challenged the team not to play down to opponents. Following a three-game losing streak in December, They showed signs of resilience. Boston rattled off a nine-game winning streak leading up to the All-Star break. That run, in particular, helped secure Mazzulla the honor of head coach for the All-Star game.
The Lingering Doubts
In March, Boston started with six wins and five losses. The losses came to inferior opponents, including one to the league-worst Houston Rockets. These struggles set off alarm bells for fans who saw them as legitimate title contenders. Fairly or unfairly, those who worry about the Celtics point to the fact that last year the key that unlocked their success was coaching.
In their turnaround last year, the Celtics played with a sense of urgency that overwhelmed opponents. Ime Udoka’s coaching style forced the Celtics to respond and face their mistakes. A coach’s responsibility is to hold the players accountable. In the games they dropped this year, it feels like the team has gotten bored.
Other gripes relate to Mazzulla’s lineup decisions. The Celtics dealt with injuries to reigning defensive player of the year Marcus Smart and All-Star Jaylen Brown. In their absences, Derrick White has flourished. However, in recent weeks, White has been left out of the rotation in crucial moments. White’s minutes are going to be tough to maneuver, but it’s something that has to be managed near perfectly come playoff time.
Heading to the Playoffs
Mazzulla tried to rationalize with fans after the recent road trip, saying that normally after a four-and-two record, “everybody would be happy.” But because there are so few games left, the level of urgency needs to be higher.
Boston has shown signs of dominance in the last three games. They beat the Sacramento Kings, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs all by 20+ points. This coincides with Boston being in a tight battle for playoff seeding. The Milwaukee Bucks walked down the Celtic’s lead on the one seed and overtook them at the start of March. But, if the Celtics can return to the level of play they showed up until the All-Star break, they can return to the finals.
The little things are going to matter for this Celtics team. Mazzulla could potentially have to face three coaches who have coached NBA finals-winning teams, just in the Eastern Conference. Gaining momentum in the last eight regular season games is vital heading into the playoffs for both the players and Mazzulla.
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