Life Without Ime | Joe Mazzulla Wins First Game As Celtics Interim Head Coach, So Far They Haven’t Missed A Beat

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The Boston Celtics defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 126-117 in the season opener on Tuesday night, Oct. 18. Interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, who is running the show while Ime Udoka serves a season-long suspension for violating team rules, is 1-0 and at least right now has the buy in and trust of his players.

If that continues, moving on from Udoka may prove easier than anyone thought.

It’s only one game out of 82, so let’s not overreact. But there are some things working in Mazzulla’s favor. He’s been an assistant on the Celtics since 2019, working under then head coach Brad Stevens (now president of basketball operations) and Udoka.

The Celtics core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart has been together since the 2017-2018 season. In a league with heavy player movement, that type of continuity is a huge advantage.

During those five seasons the team has made the playoffs every year, including three conference finals and an NBA Finals.

“From the start of the game, his confidence, you could see, is oozing out,” Marcus Smart said. “Usually, most coaches are trying to figure things out, and he comes right in like he’s doing it for years. That’s the beauty of having someone who has been with the team as long as Joe has and stepped into that role. We have the utmost confidence in Joe, and he has the utmost confidence in us.”

Still, it was quite the dramatic change in roles when he was named interim head coach in late September after Celtics management decided to suspend Udoka. Training camp is about to begin and he has the expectation of his usual assistant coach role and is suddenly told he’s sitting in the lead chair.

The Celtics wouldn’t have promoted him if they didn’t think he was capable. Regardless, it’s still an adjustment. You have to get players’ buy-in, particularly your star players and leaders.

“He wouldn’t have (taken) any of the credit for tonight, but the thing that I like about Joe and admire about him is that he’s very honest that he doesn’t know everything,” Tatum said. “He wants us to help him out as much as he’s helping us out. It’s like we’re in a relationship, and we’re all on the same page and trying to accomplish the same thing. We’re all in this together.”

Mazzulla was a tough point guard who played collegiately at West Virginia under head coach Bob Huggins and helped the team win the NIT Tournament in 2007. In the 2008 NCAA tourney, he helped West Virginia upset Duke in the second round and led the team to the Final Four in 2010.

Knowing the game is one part of the job of a head coach. You need a high level of emotional intelligence, empathy and humbleness. A head coach works together with players to achieve a common goal. But that only works if there is trust.

“I’m grateful to the players for the relationship that we have. And I’m really grateful that they trust me and that we trust each other in that they were able to show that type of buy-in,” Mazzulla said. “When we do things together, we have a huge opportunity. So it felt good.”

It had to feel good to get that win under his belt after a month of uncertainty and turmoil around the Udoka situation. Talent wins in the NBA and the Celtics have a lot of it. If this team and Mazzulla continue to build trust and fortify their relationship, a return trip to the NBA Finals is not out of the realm of possibility. If that happens, the situation with Udoka that threatened to define a season will be reduced to an afterthought.