NEW YORK — Not that long ago it seemed the Celtics were destined for a starring role as an early-season car-wreck curiosity, the must-watch local team for drama and discord, after a shocking season-long suspension of head coach Ime Udoka and the stunning elevation of little-known assistant Joe Mazzulla just days before training camp.
But here the Celtics are, fresh off a franchise record-setting night of 3-pointers, 27 in all as they beat up on the Knicks, 133-118, Saturday night Madison Square Garden. Led by six 3s apiece from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and five more from Sam Hauser, Boston upped its record to 6-3, winning its second straight on back-to-back nights. Quietly, the Celtics are chugging along as the area’s most stable team, helped in no small part by the fact that the Nets emerged as potential takers for Udoka as their new head coach.
Though the jury remains out on whether Udoka ends up in Brooklyn, with a seemingly foregone conclusion in the wake of Steve Nash’s unceremonious firing now rounding the corner into a second week of speculation, one thing remains certain as the rumor mill grinds on.
Udoka won’t be back coaching the Celtics. Not this year, not next year, and most likely never again.
That is good news for Mazzulla, and not because the 34-year-old surprise selection to move from the second row of coaches to the main chair on the bench has shown any indication he’s been bothered by the specter of Udoka’s shadow.
Instead, as Mazzulla emerged from a victory in which he continued to see his team craft an offensive identity built on consistent effort, he did so with what is emerging as a trademark even-tempered countenance. It seems clear that despite his relative youth and regardless of his relative inexperience, the Celtics interim coach is motivated not by being the next iteration of any coach who’s gone before him, but to be the first, best version of himself.
“I think every game, I’m going to learn something good that I did and something bad that I did,” he said. “Maintaining that perspective and bringing it into each game is important, and remembering that each game is its own entity.”
There’s no ignoring that specter of Udoka’s memory, particularly among players who’d fought their way within two games of an NBA title under Udoka’s watch in his first season as a head coach, and who still feel blindsided by the mystery surrounding his exit. The suspension, at least initially, left a sliver of possibility he could return to the Celtics’ bench when it was over.
But now the Nets seem ready to take Udoka off Boston’s hands, to reunite him with players he’d been an assistant coach to on Nash’s staff, to hand him the keys to the NBA’s most dysfunctional team and hope he can do anything to solve the complex riddle of idiocy, confusion and happiness that is Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons, and Kevin Durant.
Good luck to Udoka, who would inherit a situation with the currently suspended Irving that exposed everything that is wrong with the Nets as a franchise, their response to Irving’s many public missteps looking both too slow to indicate they understand the gravity of his antisemitic words and too reactionary to make us believe they have actually put reasoned, logical thought behind their actions.
The only current team with a worse public relations approach? Our very own Bruins, whose seven-game win streak was snapped in Toronto while they continue to bungle the signing of defenseman Mitchell Miller. A day after general manager Don Sweeney spent 30 minutes defending the decision to add the player with a troubled past, the franchise was deservedly embarrassed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who revealed to The Athletic that the Bruins had not reached out to the league to confirm Mitchell’s availability. As it turns out, the onetime Coyotes draft pick who was later renounced after the Arizona Republic exposed hs racist/bullying history with a developmentally disabled classmate, isn’t even eligible to play in the NHL.
While the Nets and Bruins stumble and fumble around, the Celtics are finding their footing.
A lot of that has to do with Mazzulla. The calling of timeouts aside — and Mazzulla earned a good chuckle before Saturday night’s win when he quickly admitted timeouts are the one area he hopes to improve on — he has managed to effect a pretty seamless transition to head coach. Yes, it helps to have holdover talents like Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart (Al Horford was unavailable to play against the Knicks), but Mazzulla has also done a good job working in the addition of Malcolm Brogdon as well as navigating a defense without the injured Robert Williams.
And he’s continued to be an ear for his players, many of whom were understandably shocked when stories of Udoka’s imminent return surfaced.
“I care about what they’re going through,” Mazzulla told the Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach after Udoka emerged as the Nets’ likely candidate. “I hope that they know we can always talk about anything. I’ve had plenty of conversations with them about multiple things. But the most important thing for me is that they feel that they can be heard and they can talk to me.”
That might be easier than getting him to talk about himself. I asked Mazzulla about coming to the Garden, the site of one of his greatest college highlights as a player, when he helped West Virginia beat Georgetown for the 2010 Big East championship.
“Obviously they are good memories, but they don’t have anything to do with playing the Knicks tonight,” Mazzulla said. “I could feel it walking in, but playing the Knicks is the most important thing.”