Execs Weigh in on Early Returns for Celtics’ Joe Mazzulla: ‘Let’s Not Go Crazy’

Joe Mazzulla, Celtics

Getty Joe Mazzulla, Celtics

The remarks were surprising, but noted — the kind of stuff you keep close in mind for quick re-examination as the days and weeks pass. Two league sources hinted just prior to the regular season in conversations with Heavy Sports that Joe Mazzulla might be a better coach for the Celtics right now. Another said it flat-out.

Yet another source laughed when presented with those statements. “Let’s not go crazy here just yet,” he said.

Ime Udoka has been suspended for the year for team policy violations, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who believes he will coach this team again. But the man did, in fact, lead the Celtics to a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals, so that’s some very large footwear to fill.

The returns on Mazzulla are good from early voting, but he and the Celtics certainly didn’t carry Chicago. After three straight wins to open the campaign, the C’s went from a 19-point lead to an 18-point loss Monday.

Mazzulla ‘Not Afraid to Be Straight With Guys’

While Mazzulla’s biggest challenge won’t come until he has to play postseason chess, trying to counter and outmaneuver an opponent focusing on the Celtics for an entire series, not just a quick trip to the Garden in November, steering his club out of this skid mark will be a test. The C’s were slipping at times in Orlando, and Mazzulla pointed out that they shouldn’t just expect things to magically work out all the time.

“Joe’s like Ime in the way that he’s not afraid to be straight with guys and go at them when he has to,” said someone very close to the situation. “But he also knows what went wrong last year and that there’s some basic stuff that needs fixing.”

Mazzulla’s process is coming into clearer light, according to one opposing personnel man who cautioned that it’d be foolish to draw conclusions just yet.

“The thing that would be concerning to me is just that he’s kind of got the Tom Thibodeau rotation thing going right now, and it’s pretty early in the year to be eliminating some guys,” he said. “I’ve heard he was that way in training camp, and a lot of that was attributed to the fact he wanted to build trust with the starters that he knew what he was doing and build relationships with them. So that part makes sense. But it’s a long year. You’re probably going to need a little bit of Payton Pritchard and a little bit of Sam Hauser and whoever else you have. I’m going to be interested to see how that gets handled.”

Celtics Playing Faster Under Mazzulla

The Celtics have taken a step forward in at least one important area, pushing the pace more often.

“Every coach says they want to play up-tempo, but not many of them coach it,” a league source told Heavy Sports. “They like control. They worry that things will get away from them. But you have to let go a little to play fast. You have to empower guys and trust — and you have to get on them when they stop moving.

“Boston’s getting out in transition more now, though I still can’t believe what happened to them after that start in Chicago. But they have been better so far, and you’ve got to credit the coach for now. If it gets to January and they’re still playing fast, then we’ll see.”

One league coach put the eggs in the players’ basket.

“The best thing Mazzulla has going for him is that the players have experience. They’ve been there and they know what mistakes they made and how it cost them,” he said. “The feeling I got from talking to those guys is that they needed someone to take them on — to take on the strong personalities. Ime got their attention, but they still went back to hero ball in critical spots, and that’s really what cost them the championship.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see how this goes, because, trust me, everyone in this league knows if Boston is healthy and has their head together, this year could be theirs.”


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