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Sports

Mazzulla’s Cinderella story

SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson - The Philippine Star
Mazzulla�s Cinderella story
Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla speaks to the media during the 2024 NBA Finals Media Day at the TD Garden on June 05, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Maddie Meyer / Getty Images / AFP

It had to be fate that brought Joe Mazzulla to the Boston Celtics. More like an act of God. He had never been a head coach before joining the NBA franchise as an assistant in 2019. Mazzulla was an assistant coach with two NCAA D2 West Virginia schools, Glenville State and Fairmont State, and also an assistant with the Celtics’ G-League farm team Maine. While caddying for the Celtics, Mazzulla applied for the Utah Jazz head coaching job but was rejected, leaving him in Boston.

Then came the bombshell. Celtics head coach Ime Udoka was suspended for his involvement in an “intimate” relationship with an office staff while in a long-term relationship with a fiancée before the 2022-23 season. The Boston organization wouldn’t tolerate the behavior and Udoka eventually left the Celtics. His suspension elevated Mazzulla to the position of interim head coach. Mazzulla later became the Celtics’ 18th head coach who would steer the team to its 18th NBA championship.

Mazzulla, 35, never imagined he would be in the driver’s seat so soon and he would be an NBA champion coach so soon. An analytics whiz, Mazzulla said he owed everything to God. After the Celtics clinched the NBA crown last Monday, he put on a T-shirt with “But First Let Me Thank God” in the front while the players wore the customary championship T-shirts. In the post-game interview, Mazzulla deflected credit for the victory, insisting he was just a facilitator, plugging holes whenever they appeared, and said the players did it, not him. When the Celtics were eliminated by Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals in Game Seven in Boston last season, Mazzulla took the flak for the debacle. And now that the Celtics ended a 16-year wait for another title, Mazzulla is the toast of Beantown. Mazzulla said philosophically, that praise and criticism can be good or bad, depending on how you take it. He has had both.

In the just-concluded NBA Finals, Mazzulla’s fingerprints were all over the Celtics’ ascendancy, whether he’ll admit it or not. It was his gambit to stick to single coverage on Luka Doncic, influencing Dallas to play one-on-one and taking away the Mavs’ scary ball movement. It was no surprise that in Game One, Doncic had only one assist when in the regular season, he averaged 9.8. Mavs coach Jason Kidd took the bait and never adjusted throughout the series so that in the five-game Finals, Dallas wound up averaging 16.8 assists compared to Boston’s 24.2. In the regular season, the Mavs averaged 25.7 assists.

Mazzulla preached defense from the start of the Last Dance to the end. In Boston’s four wins over Dallas, the Mavs were held to an average of 95.3 points and never scored 100. In the regular season, Dallas averaged 117.9 points. In the playoffs, Boston was 9-2 at home with opponents held to an average of 99.5 points. The Celtics were 64-18 in the regular season and no team was close to matching their record. Oklahoma City and Denver were next in the ladder with identical 57-25 marks. Boston was also dominant in the playoffs with a 16-3 slate.

Choosing the Finals MVP was a chore assigned to 11 media voters. Jaylen Brown took seven votes and Jayson Tatum, four. Brown was cited for his defense on Doncic and bailing the Celtics out of danger in Game Three. But Doncic averaged 29.5 points in the Finals so Brown’s defense couldn’t have been that tough and Tatum was instrumental in the Celtics’ wins in Game Two with 18 points, nine rebounds and 12 assists and in Game Five with 31 points, eight rebounds and 11 assists. Tatum led the Celtics in points, rebounds and assists in the Finals and compiled three double doubles to none for Brown. Tatum went over 30 points twice and Brown, once. Tatum should’ve been named Finals MVP, not Brown.

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