BOSTON – Joe Mazzulla on Sunday became just the second head coach in Celtics history to reach 57 wins in his rookie season, trailing only Bill Russell’s 60 wins from his inaugural 1966-67 season as Boston’s player-coach.
Now, Mazzulla has an opportunity to pull off a feat that no first-year coach in franchise history has accomplished: winning a championship.
It’s a realistic goal for the defending Eastern Conference champions after finishing just one win shy of the NBA’s best record while also owning the No. 1 net rating in the league. And Mazzulla’s guidance has played a major role in making it so.
His journey could not have been foreseen seven months ago. On the eve of the first day of training camp, the 34-year-old New England native was unexpectedly asked to step in as the team’s interim head coach, and his professionalism in handling that moment still cannot be emphasized enough. He’s remained poised from Game 1 through Game 82, helping the team maintain its success from the previous year while also growing in his role.
President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens touched upon those points during a rare end-of-season press conference Sunday morning while reflecting on Mazzulla’s progress.
“If you watch in the last couple of months, he's calling the game as he sees it now even more so than before,” Stevens said. “He’s quicker to stop a run, he's quicker to do things. He may stop a game so he can make a sub. He may let a game go so [the opposition] can't make a sub. There are a lot of decisions to be made in that moment and you kind of feel out how your team best needs you, and that takes time. That takes time for a person that's done it for 30 years and that takes time for a person that's never done it before, and he's done a good job … All he wants to do is learn and grow and he's great with that. I think that he's been a great strength for us.”
Mazzulla agreed with Stevens’ point that there is a lot to feel out, especially during his first season after transitioning from the assistants’ bench to the head coach’s box. His approach was to stay in the moment as much as possible, and then digest those moments and learn how to improve.
“I think you have to go through certain stuff in order to be aware of it,” Mazzulla said. “There’s just some stuff that you can’t simulate. And so, I think my focus was on, ‘What’s the most important thing at this time?’ And then along the way, you see some of the stuff you need to get better at. You handle each situation differently. I think I’ve just tried to be open-minded and flexible throughout the entire year, understanding that it’s not going to go well all the time. At the same time, I have a lot of good people around me and we’re going to figure it out. And so, I think if you can just maintain that open-minded perspective, it will help you.”
Mazzulla has constantly praised those people around him – his assistant coaches and his players – for the way in which they’ve worked together to maintain their status as a championship contender. That group has also fully bought into his leadership.
Al Horford said Mazzulla was “a big help for our group” during last year’s Finals run. And after seeing how confidently Mazzulla stepped into an elevated role at the start of this season, “We’ve just been following.”
They’ve followed him through successful stretches, such as the team’s 21-5 start through early December.
They’ve followed him through rough patches, such as when they lost four out of seven after the All-Star break.
And they’ve followed him as the Celtics righted the ship and closed out the final month of the regular season with both the best offensive and defensive ratings in the league.
Now, they’re ready to follow their rookie head coach as they embark on the most important part of their journey: the pursuit of a title.