Damon Stoudamire was 10 minutes from taking his seat on Boston’s bench Tuesday night when he was notified that he wouldn’t be needing to take a seat at all. Shortly before tip-off against the visiting Houston Rockets, the second-year Celtics assistant coach learned that he’d been bumped up the depth chart and would be manning the sideline in his first game as an acting NBA head coach.
After Joe Mazzulla was ruled out at the 11th hour due to eye irritation, Stoudamire was the next in line. The announcement came as a surprise to him, to his mother in the stands visiting for the holidays, and to everyone else in the arena. Heck, the players didn't even know until Stoudamire's name was announced at the end of the lineup introductions.
“In a lot of ways, it’s better that way,” said the former NBA point guard and 1996 Rookie of the Year, who didn’t have time to become nervous due to the last-minute nature of the situation. “Just go out there and do what we’ve been doing. We put together game plans as a staff, obviously. We pretty much know what we wanted to do. Joe wasn’t able to go tonight, and I stepped in. But honestly, it’s a collaborative effort. 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.”
He never came close to messing it up, because the Celtics didn’t skip a beat. They soared past the Rockets, 126-102, picking up their third straight win behind a 39-point effort from Jaylen Brown, a 38-point performance by Jayson Tatum, and an 11-point, 15-rebound double-double off the bench for Robert Williams.
“The only difference was Joe wasn’t over there chewing the s--- out of some gum,” Tatum joked after the game.
On a more serious note, Tatum commended Stoudamire’s poise for stepping in with little warning: “It was kind of like when somebody's out on the team, somebody’s gotta step in and fill in that void. It’s not just a one-person job. We got a coaching staff that helps each other out and the team. We’re all on the same team, essentially. So when the coach is out, it’s just next-man-up mentality.”
Stoudamire said the Jays made his job easy with the way they dominated. The pair combined for 77 points and came just one basket shy apiece from becoming the first Celtics teammates to score 40-plus points in the same game.
Though, Stoudamire didn’t just stand there twiddling his thumbs, letting the game unfold before him. He was active on the sideline and in the huddles, as Brown detailed.
“I thought he held his ground pretty well,” said Brown, who scored 15 points in the first quarter and 14 more in the third. “He tried to get us organized. At times, he called timeouts and let us know where we needed to be better and stuff like that. For him not to be prepared (to step in) and get us organized, try some good sets, I thought he did a good job.”
The team could’ve unraveled due to the last-minute change, but they didn’t because they trusted Stoudamire’s ability to help carry out the game plan.
Mazzulla relayed that feeling of trust to his acting head coach just before leaving to tend to his eye.
“He just said the same thing to me that he said when he took over,” Stoudamire recounted. “He said, ‘I trust you You’re my guy, my right-hand man. Go out there and do what you need to do. I trust you to do the right thing.’”
Mazzulla spoke publicly about that trust a few weeks ago. After being named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for games played in October and November, he said that he felt the award should have been called “Staff of the Month” because of the involvement his assistant coaches had in the team's success, even though they weren't in the head-coaching spotlight.
On Tuesday night, one of those assistants finally got to share some of that spotlight. Stoudamire stepped up, and the C’s rallied around him with pride.
"Damon’s one of my favorite people in the organization,” said Brown. “It was fun to go out there and get a win for him."