When Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla sat at a TD Garden dais for his pregame interview Tuesday, his eyes were watery and he squinted as he answered a few questions. Sensing his discomfort, a team staffer cut the session a bit short before Mazzulla walked out.
About an hour later, it was announced that he would miss the game against the Houston Rockets due to eye irritation, and with 10 minutes before tip-off, assistant Damon Stoudamire was tabbed to take his place. Mazzulla told Stoudamire he trusted him, and mostly left it at that.
Stoudamire played in the NBA for 13 seasons and went on to coach Pacific University. But before Tuesday he’d never coached an NBA game. It could have been a lot, especially on such short notice.
“But in a lot of ways, it’s better that way,” Stoudamire said. “Just go out there and do what we’ve been doing. We put together game plans as a staff, obviously. We pretty much knew what we wanted to do. Everybody plays their part in situations like this. It’s been like this pretty much all season. So, for me it was just a matter of going out there and truly not messing it up. We had a rhythm. We had a flow.”
When the game began, there were no obvious signs that any part of Boston’s attack had changed. The Celtics continued to launch 3-pointers at an extremely high clip. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown continued to dominate. An inferior opponent continued to look the part.
In the end, the Celtics rolled to a 126-102 win that was closer than that for most of the game, but also never really seemed in danger.
“The only difference was Joe wasn’t over there chewing the [expletive] out of some gum,” Tatum quipped. “But we’re professionals and we know essentially what we’re supposed to do. I’m not saying the coach doesn’t help us out with managing the game, but I think we’ve been doing this a while. We should be able to execute.”
Brown had 39 points and Tatum added 38. Robert Williams came off the bench and added 11 points and 15 rebounds in just 21 minutes. Boston made 20 of 56 3-pointers.
“It’s always a little easier when you’ve got JT and JB,” Stoudamire said. “That’s not a bad start. But this group has been together a while. So you can organize them and then they know how to play. That’s the biggest thing.”
Stoudamire mostly followed the blueprint that Mazzulla has established in his first season as a head coach: a free-flowing offense built around spacing and randomness that usually leads to open perimeter shots, and favorable matchups for two players who thrive against them.
Recently, Stoudamire told Brown and Tatum that when players reach the NBA, they give something extra when facing superstars. The games are more meaningful. And he pointed out that Tatum and Brown, who are still just 24 and 26, respectively, are now the ones opponents are circling on their schedules.
“So guys are coming at them, and they’re going to have to understand every night that they’re put on a pedestal and they’re the barometer in a lot of different ways,” Stoudamire said. “But the maturity of it and the understanding of that, I think, has been big. And when they play well, they allow the other guys to play well.”
The Celtics started this seven-game home-stand by dropping consecutive games against the sub-.500 Magic, so there was some concern about a letdown following Sunday’s high-profile romp against the powerful Milwaukee Bucks.
The Celtics fell behind, 13-5, at the start, but quickly erased that deficit behind a 15-point first quarter from Brown. Boston outscored the Rockets in all four periods, and 70-53 during a dominant second half in which it shot 54.4 percent from the field and committed just four turnovers.
“This offense is a lot quicker,” Williams said, “a lot more freedom.”
Over the past two games Boston’s offense has looked more like the one that was so powerful for most of this season before its hiccup earlier this month. After losing five of six, the Celtics have now rolled off three wins in a row and reclaimed the best record in the NBA as the season approaches its midway point.
The Celtics will close out this lengthy homestand Thursday night against the Clippers, a team that kick-started Boston’s rut with a thorough win in Los Angeles two weeks ago. It’s unclear whether Mazzulla will be back to coach against the Clippers, but it’s clear that even if he is not, this group is prepared to keep pushing forward.
“We’ve got a great team,” Stoudamire said. “We’ve got guys who know how to play, and they make it easy for you.”