scorecardresearch Skip to main content
tara sullivan

Is Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla the next Erik Spoelstra? There’s reason to think so.

In his first year as an NBA head coach, Joe Mazzulla has his Celtics in the conference finals.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The Celtics have a potent 1-2 punch up top (Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown), savvy veterans at point guard and center (Marcus Smart and Al Horford), and emerging talent, along with the league’s best sixth man, filling the gaps (Robert Williams, Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon).

In other words, they boast the best roster of the four teams remaining in the NBA playoffs, certainly better on paper than the injury-depleted Heat.

But against Miami, the Celtics have to face the best remaining coach.

Yet as much as every head-to-head chart constructed in advance of the Eastern Conference finals will give the coaching edge to Erik Spoelstra, this is not a moment to bury Joe Mazzulla. In fact, what Celtics fans should see when they look at the coaching matchup is not simply a 15-year, two-time champion on one side and the NBA’s youngest coach (34) whose previous head coaching experience included but one stop at Division 2 Fairmont State on the other.

What they should see in Spoelstra is what is possible for Mazzulla.


Tatum’s record-breaking Game 7
Celtics reporter Gary Washburn talks about Jayson Tatum’s record-breaking performance in Game 7 vs the Sixers, and previews the upcoming Celtics-Heat series.

Spoelstra is now considered among the best coaches in the NBA, a tactical wizard whose penchant for preparation has earned great respect in the locker rooms he’s led, the man who has taken these eighth-seeded Heat through upsets of the No. 1 Bucks and the overmatched Knicks.

But that wasn’t always the case, especially when Spoelstra was the relative unknown coach who happened to be in place to inherit the Big Three free agent gathering in Miami in 2010. The union of LeBron James (and his talents), Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh put Spoelstra under intense scrutiny, a stream of “that-guy-is-going-to-coach-LeBron?” incredulity underscoring nearly everything the then third-year coach did.

Sound familiar? Mazzulla’s ascent to head coach just before the season brought out a lot of the same questions, especially for a team that Ime Udoka had taken within two games of a championship a season ago. But much the way Miami general manager Pat Riley believed in and stuck by Spoelstra, who was just 37 when hand-picked by Riley in 2008, so too does Brad Stevens have faith in Mazzulla, whom he promoted after Udoka’s dismissal, reportedly for having an inappropriate workplace relationship.


Spoelstra’s early problems were magnified when the team got out to a 9-8 start that included an unfortunate bump between James and Spoelstra in the midst of a loss to Dallas. Intentional or not, the optics were terrible, and even though that team would make it to the Finals, a loss to the Mavericks kept the heat on Spoelstra and kept the questions coming.

Two titles in the next two years and one more Finals appearance in James’s fourth and final season in South Beach changed the narrative, but in a 2020 interview, Spoelstra reflected on that period in his career:

“I’m just very grateful that I had that opportunity to be able to grow and be on that journey with that group. That was an amazing team, and everything that came about it. In many ways, just my personality, I hated it. I’m an introvert, but I think it was good to go through that. Sometimes even as a professional, just to get out of your comfort zone and embrace it and see what happens when you get on the other side of it.”


Mazzulla and Jayson Tatum have the Celtics pointed in the right direction this postseason.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

No doubt Mazzulla is similarly uncomfortable in the spotlight, but he continues to learn on the job, being honest, forthright, and accountable for his mistakes, none bigger than the non-timeout mea culpa he took after the Game 4 loss in Philadelphia. And since then, he coached his two best games at the season’s two most critical junctures.

A Game 6 win Thursday night in Philadelphia included the lineup switch that made an enormous difference (inserting Williams for White) and coaxing Tatum through the worst shooting night of his life to one of the greatest four-minute finales in playoff history, and a Game 7 win Sunday at home pushed the Celtics over an early deficit and led them straight through a laugher of a finish line.

Mazzulla’s strength — trusting his players to make the right decisions on the court — has been rewarded as many times as it has backfired. And the communication between him and his players really seems genuine, especially with that insertion of Williams, a move other players applauded (and maybe encouraged).

“That just goes to show you Joe’s learning just like all of us,” Smart said after Game 6. “I know he’s been killed a lot, rightfully so. He needs to make some adjustments, and he did that. And that’s all you can ask for.”

It was a comment that raised a few eyebrows, one that when read on its own came across as critical. But it wasn’t. Smart has been nothing but impressed with the way Mazzulla has worked on the job.


“It’s not going to be perfect,” Smart said. “Joe’s not perfect. He was put in a very tough situation this year, and he’s doing the best he can, and that’s all we can ask for. We’re going to continue to go out there and work our tails off for him just like he’s going to go out there and continue to work his tail off for us.”

Perhaps one day that line will expand to sound more like James, who said this about Spoelstra before facing him in 2020, when James’s Lakers beat the Heat in the Finals.

“Every time we talked about Spo when I was there and we talked about how great he prepared us, and we talked about how great it was playing for Spo and things of that nature, you guys always said, ‘Well, you have LeBron, you have D-Wade, you have Bosh. Any coach can do it.’

“No, any coach can’t do it. If any coach could do it, then there would be a lot more champions in this league.”

Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @Globe_Tara.