Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla drives a minivan. He doesn’t know if he has a special parking spot as the team’s head coach. This season is his first at the helm of an NBA team, and his only previous head coaching experience came at the NCAA Division II level.
In many respects, Mazzulla is a deeply unusual figure at the top of an organization’s coaching staff.
But Mazzulla and the Celtics, of course, have found themselves in a deeply unusual place — a defending Eastern Conference champion reloaded after a highly successful offseason, but missing their head coach after Ime Udoka was suspended for the year, reportedly due to an inappropriate relationship with a team staffer.
That leaves Mazzulla to pick up the pieces and figure out what’s next for a franchise with championship aspirations. Still, as he sees it, his job is simply to continue building up the foundation laid by last year’s team.
“I park in the same spot,” Mazzulla told reporters after the Celtics’ first training camp practice on Tuesday. “I do what I’m supposed to do. And I think that’s part of it. Same thing I’m asking the players to do, I have to do. I have to do my job — I have to take it one day at a time, and I can’t skip any steps either.”
Mazzulla’s first practice was a success, if you ask the players who participated in it.
“It was a great day,” Grant Williams said. “Everybody was here competing. You could see that everybody was anticipating coming back to the court, everybody was anxious and ready to get going. …
“We did a great job of dictating the practice, controlling the vibe and controlling our effort, so good first day.”
Mazzulla knows he and Udoka are different — he likes to move around, for example, where Udoka was more stoic. But he tried to maintain some consistency for a team that has had a week so chaotic, Marcus Smart described it as “hell for us.”
“I felt the structure was the same, the time was the same, the template of the drills that we did was the same,” Mazzulla said. “The communication might be a little bit different, but as much as these guys can be comfortable, it’s going to help us. …
“If I can cooperate with them on how we’re going to go about making them comfortable and then deciding together where we need to evolve on both ends of the floor is kind of what’s going to help us create our identity.”
Williams reiterated what several players said on Media Day — Mazzulla’s lengthy tenure with the team makes him a comfortable replacement for Udoka. Mazzulla joined the Celtics in 2019 under Brad Stevens and has remained a steady presence within the franchise ever since.
“He knows these guys better than anyone who’s been around them for four years, and both the highs and lows,” Williams said. “He’s been with us when we’re losing two years ago and when we were winning last year, so he has a good understanding of what we need and where we need to improve.”
Al Horford, meanwhile, noted that the players were ready to get back on the floor anyway.
“[Mazzulla] did a good job,” Horford said. “But I think everybody was so locked in, we were all so ready to go that once we got out on the court, it was just nice to get back on the court and review our defense and talk about offense. Doing what we do.”
Mazzulla and the Celtics know things will change some over the course of the season. Even if Udoka was still with the team, there are new faces — most notably Malcolm Brogdon — and the Celtics have a newly acquired target on their backs after their run to the Finals. They won’t sneak up on anyone.
“Teams are gonna play us even more different, but we expect that,” Horford said.
Maybe at some point, things will be so different that Mazzulla will get his own parking spot.
“I didn’t even ask,” Mazzulla said. “It’s not that important. What’s more important is just making sure I do what I’ve got to do to help these guys.”
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