For those who wondered about Joe Mazzulla’s competitive spirit for the least bit, we present to you Tuesday night at TD Garden when the Celtics needed to beat the Chicago Bulls by at least 23 points to advance to the In-Season Tournament quarterfinals.
His actions were well chronicled. He played his starters deep into the fourth quarter to secure the lead. He called for intentional fouls on poor free throw shooter Andre Drummond, who missed five of his six attempts in the final period.
For Mazzulla, those empty possessions are like those surprising Christmas gifts in the back of the tree or the 50-cent piece in between the couch cushions. They make him happy. It means his team is executing to his specifications. And although the Celtics may never meet Mazzulla’s lofty analytical expectations, they are coming close more often this season.
And if that execution means that Mazzulla has to irk opposing coaches. That’s part of the journey. That is not of his concern.
In the past three weeks, Mazzulla has had on-court disputes with opposing coaches because of his decisions. And while they are each in different circumstances, it’s a sign that Mazzulla is willing to bruise egos for the sake of victory and progress.
On Nov. 11, Mazzulla challenged an out-of-bounds call with 3 minutes, 39 seconds left in the fourth quarter and the Celtics leading the Toronto Raptors by 27 points. Mazzulla and the Celtics won the challenge but former Celtic Dennis Schröder and Raptors coach Darko Rajakovic had issue with the challenge because of the time and score. They considered it excessive.
“Up 30, you’re not supposed to challenge nothing,” Schröder told me after the game. “You won, it’s three minutes left. You shouldn’t disrespect us like that.”
Rajakovic refused to comment, but he wasn’t happy with Mazzulla.
Fast forward to Nov. 28 when Mazzulla had to explain to Chicago’s Billy Donovan why he was intentionally hacking Drummond to help the Celtics retain their lead. It was embarrassing to Drummond, a career 47.7 percent free throw shooter. But in all honesty, how much empathy should an opposing coach have for Drummond because he’s spent 12 years as a poor free throw shooter?
Donovan, whose team played passionless most of the night, was unhappy with Mazzulla’s decision.
“I told [Mazzulla], ‘What are we doing here?’ ” Donovan said after the game. “I get it with keeping your [starters] in, wanting to get in [to the In-Season Tournament]. The league’s made a big deal [about the tournament]. But, in all fairness, they’ve got to deal with the rules, too. They are things they have to do [to get to Las Vegas].
“But to me, it was just the fouling. And Joe was great when I talked to him and he understood. It’s a tough situation. OK keep [Jayson] Tatum, keep them all in. But I just thought it was putting Andre in a tough spot in a 30-point game. I didn’t like that.”
Mazzulla, 35, wants to play the game fairly, but has also said he is consumed with finding the “gray areas” to where he can exploit the rules and benefit his team. He’s a competitor and he’s not trying to make friends. Maybe for other younger coaches, being popular among their coaching brethren is important; making friends is part of being a member of the fraternity.
Mazzulla has no interest in being part of this network.
“How do I say this nicely? I don’t care,” he said about having positive relationships with fellow NBA coaches. “But I also have respect for people. Like I learn from every coach, I think they’re a lot of great coaches in the league. I’ve studied what other teams do. But as far as having an off-court relationship with a coach? I don’t. That’s like last on the list.”
And he’s determined to get his team to Las Vegas for the semifinals on Thursday. That will mean overcoming the unique challenge that is the host Indiana Pacers on Monday. The Pacers are the league’s highest-scoring team and were beaten by the Celtics by 51 points in their first meeting. All-Star Tyrese Haliburton, who is 12th in the NBA in scoring, first in assists, and second in 3-pointers made, did not play in that game.
It’s another test for Mazzulla as he embarks on his second season, more comfortable and confident than the first, with championship aspirations. He has made it clear he is engrossed in pushing his team to the next level, maneuvering through the league’s guidelines, such as point differential for the tournament for that ultimate success.
This is only the In-Season Tournament, there is a bigger crown ahead regardless of what happens this week, but Mazzulla kept his feelings about this new innovation to himself until that fourth quarter of the Bulls game. He wants to win the In-Season Tournament and he’s not concerned with ruffling feathers, angering rivals, or exposing opponent’s weaknesses in the process. He’s all about his team.