Evaluating Mazzulla’s first season

Posted 5/31/23

The Boston Celtics saw their season come to an end on Monday night as the Miami Heat won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to advance to the championship round.

The loss marked the end of …

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Evaluating Mazzulla’s first season


The Boston Celtics saw their season come to an end on Monday night as the Miami Heat won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to advance to the championship round.

The loss marked the end of the season for Johnston native and head coach Joe Mazzulla, who was in his first year as head coach after being elevated to the title midway through the season.

Mazzulla, who was also the youngest coach in the league, got a taste of his first postseason experience these past few weeks, so let’s take a moment here to evaluate his first year at the helm.

Mazzulla deserves much credit, first and foremost, for the situation he took over. Former coach Ime Udoka was suspended prior to the regular season for violating team rules. Mazzulla was handed the reins and had to be in the center of the controversy leading up to the season.

The fact that such a young coach was able to handle that type of scrutiny is impressive and shows his maturity. He never blinked, stayed the course, and focused solely on coaching the team. He deflected the questions regarding Udoka’s departure and kept the conversion strictly to basketball.

The Celtics would then go on a big run to start the season and would wrap up the second seed for the playoffs. Midway through the season, Mazzulla led the team to enough success and gained enough respect from the players that the franchise decided to remove the interim tag and elevate him the full head coach. The stars of the team were very vocal in their support.

Which leads me to my next point. In the NBA, the coach-player relationship is the most important of any sport. NBA rosters are small and there are only five players on the court at once and maybe eight or so will play on a given night. Considering how small NBA rosters are, the relationship is paramount and Mazzulla succeeded in building that connection early in his first year. He earned that respect and trust.

From there, he tapped into elements of the team that were not on display last season, specifically on offense.

Udoka’s system centered on defense. The Celtics were an elite defensive team last year, but there were times when it felt like the offense suffered because of it. With guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, it felt like this could be an elite offensive team if they were cut loose.

Mazzulla did that this season, and although the defensive performance was not quite what it was last year, Boston absolutely took a step forward on offense and we saw Tatum and Brown develop even further. Each were All-Stars and All-NBA players.

Now, let’s dig into the playoffs.

The postseason is when we really separate the good teams from the great teams. It’s when your biggest flaws are on display and your strengths are tested. Especially as a young coach, Mazzulla was going to be pressed from the first game, and sure enough, he was.

Boston beat Atlanta in the first round in six games. The talent gap was substantial, so there is not too much to dive into there.

The second round against Philadelphia, though, we saw Mazzulla and the Celtics take on some adversity when they fell behind 3-2.

This Celtics team had been known to fold in some big moments, but explode and play their best basketball in others. It would be up to Mazzulla to make sure it would be the later, and sure enough it was, as Boston rolled to consecutive wins to punch their ticket to the conference finals.

Then, even more trouble, as they fell behind 3-0 against Miami. From there, the Celtics would once again flip that switch, tie things up at 3-3 and force Monday night’s Game 7.

Miami got the deciding win and credit to the Heat, they hit more shots and played tighter defense. When a team has those advantages, it’s almost impossible for them to lose. Monday was Miami’s night and Boston never really found its rhythm.

Overall, it was a successful first season for Mazzulla and I absolutely believe that he has earned the right to coach this team next season.

The most criticism he took this year was when the team fell behind 3-0 to Miami, and deservedly so. In those games, Mazzulla struggled to manage his timeouts, the clock, and the team looked unfocused at times. Mazzulla admitted that was on him, as it certainly was.

Mazzulla was out-coached those first three games, plain and simple. Some national media members felt that if the Celtics were swept then Mazzulla would have to be fired. I always thought that was a bit much considering it was a first year, but that 3-0 deficit was tough to watch as a Johnston reporter rooting for the local guy to find his way.

Although the team did not finish the job, ultimately, the comeback to force Game 7 was impressive and worthy of our praise. Again, they should not have been down three games in the first place, but the playoffs are always a grind, there are ups and downs in every series.

Next year will be huge for Mazzulla as he will have a full season under his belt and will likely have a new roster with some contracts expiring. Every season poses new challenges and next year will be another tough go.

Although Mazzulla certainly faced some tough times and his inexperience was on display in a few moments this season, it is hard not to be impressed with how he led this team and organization in his first year. He had a lot on his plate both on and off the court and coached the team to Game 7 of the conference finals. There’s still unfinished business, but Mazzulla deserves our trust moving forward.

pitch, Mazzulla, basketball, Celtics


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