SALT LAKE CITY — Optically, it would have been uncomfortable and unsettling for the Celtics to allow Joe Mazzulla to travel to NBA All-Star Weekend as the interim head coach.
The shadow of Ime Udoka, and the misdoings that led to his suspension, have been hovering over the organization — and more specifically, Mazzulla, his replacement — for months. The Celtics did not want Mazzulla taking that baggage to Salt Lake City for the league’s premier showcase weekend.
So it was an astute move to lift the tag from Mazzulla, break ties with Udoka, and move forward. There are still plenty of questions about Udoka’s departure. The organization has been tight-lipped about whether there were any additional misdoings and both sides have moved forward.
Udoka has declined interview requests and remained silent after his lone statement accepting his suspension. He has become less of a subject in the Celtics locker room, thanks to the success of Mazzulla, who has fostered the team’s quest to capitalize on last year’s NBA Finals appearance by grabbing the league’s best record through the first two-thirds of the season.
Mazzulla’s rapid success was unexpected by those who were unfamiliar with the man who kept a low profile as an assistant coach. But there was a reason president of basketball operations Brad Stevens chose Mazzulla over an outside candidate or other members of the coaching staff.
“Joe specifically has just done a great job, he really has,” Stevens said. “He’s always prepared. He’s really driven. He does all of the work necessary but he also has a pulse on when the work needs to be put aside for the people. We were not only really comfortable with it but also really excited about him leading us now and into the future.”
The Celtics did not want this to extend to June 30, when Udoka’s suspension officially ends, for the sake of both sides. Udoka can now seek employment elsewhere. Whether the public likes it or not, he will be a prime candidate for NBA head coaching jobs as time progresses because of his ability to coach.
It’s up to Udoka to prove to future employers that he’s improved as a person and decision maker in his personal life. It was going to be impossible for him to walk into that Celtics locker room and command the same respect he did before. His reputation had been tarnished, and Mazzulla compensated for Udoka’s lack of compassion with the players by taking the Celtics job and flourishing. Mazzulla has developed his own distinct coaching style. He has driven Celtics faithful crazy with his disdain for timeouts, but he has also gotten the best out of his roster.
The Celtics have improved steadily defensively. They are unbeatable when they are hitting threes and he has helped eliminate mental lapses and inconsistencies that plagued Udoka at times. Mazzulla is nowhere near a perfect coach. He should have called a timeout in the final possessions against Miami and Milwaukee, but he’s made such an overwhelmingly positive impression, the Celtics had no choice but to make his presence permanent.
“I know Joe will work his tail off,” Stevens said. “I know Joe will give everything he has to lead and I know he gives a damn about everybody in that locker room. He really, really cares. It eats him up when something doesn’t go well individually for a guy. It eats him up when he feels like he let the team down.
“We’re going to be in battle. It’s going to be really hard to win. The hardest thing to do would be coaching looking behind you and looking over your shoulder. And if you’re in a Game 7, know that everybody in the organization believes in you and that uncertainty is erased. You’ve earned that, and I thought that was really important.”
Mazzulla is much too confident to be looking over his shoulder. But he did remind reporters last week prior to the trade deadline that he was “just the interim coach,” a reminder that he fully realized his leadership and impact on the organization could be short-lived unless that tag was lifted and he was officially handed the keys.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve always known where I stood,” Mazzulla said. “Even though it was an interim position, I knew I was going to get a fair shake. I was going to get an opportunity and I was going to be able to do it the way that I thought gives us the best chance to be successful.”
He found out the news after the Celtics’ win over the Detroit Pistons and while he won’t outwardly display his pleasure or satisfaction, Mazzulla comprehends the significance of the moment and what he has accomplished so far. He’ll spend this weekend with his wife and two children breathing in the fresh mountain air and enjoying being a central figure of All-Star Weekend before getting back to the grind because his job is far from completed.
“I’m just trying to balance the moments of focus and execution and the moments of gratitude and awareness,” Mazzulla said. “This three- or four-day stretch is a really good opportunity to focus on gratitude and awareness and just take everything in. When we landed here in Utah, just to see the mountains and I got my wife and kids and our staff and their wives and kids, it was really a cool moment to take in.”
And Monday, Mazzulla will be back to Focused, Cantankerous Joe, but with the peace of mind and confidence that he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.