DENVER — Joe Mazzulla said he won’t stop playing pickup basketball, even though corneal abrasions cost the Celtics coach two games.
Mazzulla returned to the bench for Sunday’s trip opener, a 123-111 loss to the Denver Nuggets, seemingly back to normal after struggling with his vision last week. Mazzulla, who plays competitive pickup games at TD Garden about four hours before Celtics games, was scratched in the eye while grabbing a rebound Tuesday.
About 90 minutes later, during his media session before the Celtics played Houston, he struggled to see clearly and was constantly blinking his eyes. About 15 minutes before tipoff, Mazzulla was scratched from the game, replaced by assistant coach Damon Stoudamire.
Mazzulla said he was unable to watch the win over the Rockets, but he improved enough to watch Thursday’s victory over the Clippers — with the lights out and dark shades on.
“I’m good now, and I’m definitely playing pickup basketball again,” he said prior to Sunday’s game. “Just a freak accident. Just got hit in the face. I’m fortunate enough to heal up quick. Just happens sometimes.”
The Celtics went 2-0 under Stoudamire, including an impressive win over the finally healthy Clippers. Mazzulla he refrained from sending constant text messages with advice because Stoudamire is a 14-year NBA veteran with major college head coaching experience.
“I wasn’t getting any better,” Mazzulla said about Tuesday. “In that situation I thought it was a good opportunity to empower and entrust the staff and I didn’t feel like I was at my best and I didn’t want to be a distraction. It was a great opportunity [for Damon]. It says a lot about the culture we have in place. It ran itself. Our staff really stepped up. (Damon) did a great job. I’m really happy for him.”
Mazzulla said he was impressed with how smoothly the system ran in his absence, especially against the Clippers.
“It says a lot about the group of guys,” Mazzulla said. “They are, regardless of who’s coaching, stick to the plan, stick to what works well, complement each other.”
Boston pulled away from Los Angeles and then held on for a 116-110 win despite MVP candidate Jayson Tatum scoring 1 point in the final period.
“We were able to focus, we were able to execute in the fourth quarter,” Mazzulla said. “It’s a credit to (Tatum) to continue to play on the defensive end regardless and we made good plays down the stretch. Our depth has carried us throughout the year as well as our starters and it’s important to keep that balance.”
Nuggets coach Mike Malone has a healthy respect for the Celtics, especially after Boston’s 131-112 win over Denver in November, a game in which the Celtics outscored the Nuggets by 13 in the final period.
“I thought it was one of our more low-energy games of the season,” Malone said. “To go into Boston and play a team that went to the Finals last year, you’re not going to give yourself a chance [like that]. We had just beaten Indiana and we got in [to Boston] really, really late, not to make excuses [but] I think it played a little part in that.”
Malone said he’s noticed some distinct differences in the Celtics since their recent skid.
“This team is flying up and down the court lately,” he said. “They’ve gone to a smaller lineup. They’re top five in transition points. Obviously you have to take care of the ball against them. You’re trying to guard a great 3-point shooting team that has two great players in Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown that are just playing lights out.”
One in, one out
The Celtics received good news prior to tipoff when center Robert Williams was cleared to play despite a non-COVID illness. Williams, who missed the Dec. 23 win over the Timberwolves with an illness, was questionable. He had 8 points and six rebounds Sunday.
After listing him as questionable, the Nuggets scratched Jamal Murray (left knee). Murray sat out the Dec. 28 loss at Sacramento before returning two nights later against Miami. Murray has averaged 19.4 points in 10 games against the Celtics, the third-highest total against an opponent. Murray scored 48 against Boston in a Nov. 5, 2018 game at Denver.