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Promising start for a Celtics franchise eager to embrace the Joe Mazzulla Era

Jayson Tatum and his teammates have made no secret of their affinity for interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, who has won them — and plenty around the NBA — over with his work ethic and professionalism.Maddie Meyer/Getty

What we learned about coach Joe Mazzulla in his NBA debut Tuesday is that he is as steady and focused as he appeared to be during training camp. There was no panic, no emotional tirades, no signs that he hadn’t been here before.

But he truly hadn’t been. Sitting in the second row, scanning an iPad and giving tips to the head coach, is not comparable to the head seat, where Mazzulla now makes all the decisions.

He was pressed into his first major one early against the Philadelphia 76ers, and he opted for training camp invite Noah Vonleh to replace Al Horford, who had picked up two fouls. Mazzulla made adjustments when the Celtics were fouling James Harden far too much and collapsing on the prolific scorer in the opening period.


Mazzulla changed defenses. Harden attempted four free throws in the final three quarters.

The most admirable trait Tuesday was that Mazzulla helped facilitate and continue the momentum generated last season without a glitch. Mazzulla was brilliant at making himself unnoticeable.

Mazzulla directs the action in the third quarter of Tuesday's win over Philadelphia.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

“Grateful for the relationship we have,” Mazzulla said, referencing the players. “We’ve talked about it before. These guys have been through a lot together. They’re great players. I appreciate their trust, their buy in, but they come up with a lot of stuff as well. We just figure it out.”

Mazzulla alluded to the teamwork aspect. He’s 34 and coaching in his first NBA season. Al Horford’s first NBA game was in November 2007. Even some of the Celtics’ “younger” players are veterans. Jayson Tatum enters year six, Jaylen Brown year seven.

It’s understandable Mazzulla is taking more advice and pointers from his players than a normal veteran NBA coach. This is no normal situation. The Celtics suspended coach Ime Udoka. He’s not around.

For every win Mazzulla earns, the chances of Udoka returning diminishes. Privately, the Celtics would love if Mazzulla thrived enough to earn the coaching job permanently and the organization can move forward without having to explain why they supplanted a coach who took them to the championship.


The franchise wants to replace the negativity from the past few weeks with the genuine glee from Tuesday night. The players lit Mazzulla up with a water shower following his first win. While he conducted his first postgame press conference still dripping, his son, Emmanuel, roamed around the press room, looking for a place to run before sitting down in front of Mazzulla’s family members and watching dad. His wife, Camai, watched with pride while his son, Michael, recorded the moment on his phone.

It’s the type of positive-vibes, feel-good story the Celtics have desperately wanted to create since the decision on Udoka was made. Brad Stevens and Wyc Grousbeck have sought to remain out of the spotlight since that distressing press conference four weeks ago.

Nights like Tuesday for the Celtics and success stories like Mazzulla, who’s gone from Division 2 coach to NBA coach in three years, fosters that change in organizational image.

Winning and winning right away will ensure the Udoka issue doesn’t hover over this team all season. The more comfortable Mazzulla is as a head coach, the more harmony created with his players, the better they execute against the conference contenders, the more the Celtics improve their stained reputation.

“Throughout the game, just finding small moments,” Mazzulla said when asked if he made an opportunity to appreciate his meteoric rise. “Going up to guys and just saying how much fun it is. It doesn’t always have to be the most serious thing. What’s fun is watching those guys compete and watching those guys execute.”


Mazzulla and Grant Williams argue a second-quarter call Tuesday night.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The players’ love is genuine. The transition from Udoka has been smooth because they already respected Mazzulla, and he commanded that respect with his work ethic and professionalism. Those who know Mazzulla around the league rave about him, believing the Celtics were fortunate to be able to pivot to such a capable, rising coach.

“Joe is great,” Tatum said. “I’m super happy for him, just making the most out of his opportunity. And getting your first win as a head coach in your first try, that’s big. He wouldn’t have taken any of the credit for [the win].

“The thing that I admire about Joe and like about him is that he’s very honest. He doesn’t know everything. He wants us to help him out as much as he’s helping us out. It’s when you’re in a relationship and we’re all on the same page and trying to accomplish the same thing, so we’re all in this together.”

The organization, for many obvious reasons and some not so much, is rooting for Mazzulla to develop into a frontline leader. Rack up wins, devise his own style, and ensure that he remains the Celtics coach indefinitely.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.