Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck told me recently when Danny Ainge asked to interview Joe Mazzulla and fellow Celtics assistant Will Hardy for Utah’s head coaching opening last June, the request was granted, with one condition: Ainge could not hire both coaches.
“I said, ‘I will fly to Utah and strangle you. You’re not taking two people. That’s not cool,’ ” Grousbeck recalled.
Grousbeck later expanded on those thoughts in an interview with WEEI, and they made their way to Ainge. When I asked Ainge if his recollections matched up with Grousbeck’s, he chuckled.
“I got a kick out of that,” said Ainge, the former Celtics president of basketball operations who is now the Jazz CEO. “I don’t remember those exact words. But from the beginning, it was pretty clear that we could interview both guys but only have one of them.
“They were very generous to give us permission to talk to them. Some teams really fight even giving you permission, because they don’t have to. It’s just kind of an unwritten rule that if a guy could get a big promotion, you would let him. So Brad [Stevens] understands that as much as anybody. But I completely understand their side.
“And Joe was a real high priority for us, not only because he did really well in the head coach interview process with us, but he was also somebody Will would have loved to work with.”
Of course, Ainge eventually hired Hardy. Mazzulla was promoted to a bench role as his replacement in Boston before being elevated to interim head coach when Ime Udoka received a one-year suspension in September for violations of team policies.
Mazzulla was a Maine Red Claws assistant in 2016-17 before leaving to coach Division 2 Fairmont State. Ainge tried to lure Mazzulla to the Celtics after one season there, but he stayed for one more year before joining Stevens’s staff in Boston.
“He had a security and belief in himself that was unusual,” Ainge said. “It gave you a sense of confidence being around him that he was competent and that he could do it. He had a fierce competitiveness, professionalism, intelligence, and confidence. And he asked questions and wanted to know what he could do better, but not in a suck-up way.”
Mazzulla has helped guide the Celtics to the best record in the NBA at 24-10.
▪ Speaking of Mazzulla, a league source said the Celtics still have no plans to remove the interim tag from his title before season’s end. Mazzulla is well aware of the situation and understands that he’ll be coaching this entire year regardless.
Udoka’s suspension, for having what the Globe has reported to be an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate team employee, is scheduled to end June 30. Privately, the Celtics may have given Mazzulla some sense of their future intentions, but unless Udoka takes another job elsewhere, don’t expect anything to be finalized until the summer.
▪ Celtics guard Marcus Smart was downright giddy as he left the locker room following the 139-118 romp over the Bucks Sunday night. He patted media members on shoulders as he offered Christmas wishes. He stopped at Jayson Tatum’s locker and the two hugged in a way friends who haven’t seen each other in years might hug.
Sure, it was a nice win, but Smart’s level of joy seemed unusual. Later in the night, it all made more sense. Smart revealed on Instagram and Twitter that he’d gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Maisa Hallum. He even had a video assist from actor Will Smith, who sent a message from Antarctica that was shown to Hallum moments before Smart took a knee.
▪ Tatum has been excellent, and more than half of the season remains. But at the moment, Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic would be at the top of this voter’s MVP ballot. Jokic has triple-doubles in three of his last four games, including a 27-rebound effort against the Hornets, and a 41-point, 15-rebound, 15-assist masterpiece in Sunday’s win over the Suns.
In FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR rankings (an advanced measure of points a player contributes to offense and defense per 100 possessions), Jokic’s plus-14.9 nearly laps the next closest player, Lakers star Anthony Davis (plus-9.5). Tatum, for what it’s worth, is tied for 11th. The Celtics face the Nuggets in Denver Sunday.
▪ Aaron Nesmith’s tenure with the Celtics was complicated. He was drafted 14th overall in 2020 in large part because they believed he could become a proficient 3-point shooter for an offense that badly needed one. But he never cracked the regular rotation during his two years in Boston and shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc last year before being traded to the Pacers in the deal that brought Malcolm Brogdon to Boston.
Nesmith’s frustration about his role with the Celtics was often visible. But Nesmith, who has emerged as a starter for the Pacers and is averaging 9 points on 37.9 percent 3-point shooting, said he learned valuable lessons during his Celtics tenure.
“Just the little things, every single day,” he said. “Not so much on the floor. It’s really off the floor, how they prepare and how they approach the game. Somebody like, for example, Al [Horford]. I watched Al come in every single day and do the same routine, no matter how he felt, whether it was an off day or a practice day. Stuff like that are things I was able to take.”
▪ Horford is generally businesslike, but he likes to sneak in fun where he can. Sometimes when he is on the low block and an opponent misses a free throw, he flinches to feign being startled by the awkward carom. On Sunday, he watched as Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo badly missed a foul shot and Celtics forward Blake Griffin stepped into the lane and looked as if he feared for his life when the ball ricocheted toward his face. Horford turned toward Boston’s bench and flashed a wide smile.
“That,” he said later, “was a good one.”