Joe Mazzulla is the perfect weirdo for Celtics’ NBA championship expectations

What does it mean to get “out-coached”?

This phrase is thrown around as an explainer for all manner of failures, from NBA head coaches declining to call crucial timeouts to allowing their team to choke away a game they had well in hand on a putrid final possession. It’s a tale as old as time: One coach made the necessary adjustments while the other stood around as if watching their car get towed.

But most of the time, it’s not elaborated on. The losing coach may have made a mistake, or they may have just been the guy who lost. But it’s not like coaches receive a scorecard from some NBA Panel of Coaching Judges who declare a “coaching winner” of the game like a decision in a boxing match. Coaches make innumerable decisions throughout a game, and to date there is no regulatory body actually adding up the net gain or loss of them. In short, any claim that someone got “out-coached” is usually left up for interpretation.

Few have been confronted with this question more than Joe Mazzulla. Since his unlikely ascent to become the head coach of the NBA Finals-bound Boston Celtics, Mazzulla has been berated with accusations of being “out-coached.” He would let opposing runs get out of control by refusing to call timeouts, be supplanted by Marcus Smart in the coaching chair in the team’s direst moments, or the Celtics would settle for a contested three on the biggest possession of the game rather than run a set play.

But never were these accusations louder than after the most damning loss of Mazzulla’s career: Game 1 of the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics were still huge favorites to take the series over the scalding-hot Miami Heat, and began the series on their home floor, taking a 66-57 lead at halftime. It hadn’t been a convincing half, but the Celtics held a serviceable lead.

But then the Heat scored 46 points in the third quarter, erasing their nine-point hole and replacing it with a 12-point cushion going into the fourth quarter. The Celtics came out of halftime flat and entitled, and the Heat emerged with bloodthirsty intention. They destroyed the Celtics, and internationally recognized Celtics fan/unofficial team mascot and founder of The Ringer Bill Simmons hosted a podcast that same night to try to figure out why.

“Something happens between the second quarter and third quarter, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this Bill… I don’t know how many of these games you’ve watched,” said David Jacoby, longtime friend of Simmons and media personality, with enough sarcastic twang to troll Simmons and Celtics fans everywhere off the face of the earth. “You leave the court and you go into the locker room, and the coaches get together and they strategize, like Joe Mazzulla and his friends. And then Erik Spoelstra and his friends get together, and they strategize. And guess what happens in the third quarter?”

With sarcasm and condescension oozing from his microphone, Jacoby is stating outright that Mazzulla was “out-coached.” Spoelstra had made adjustments to exploit the Celtics’ weaknesses, and Mazzulla had not, and thus consigned the Celtics to oblivion in a playoff environment he simply wasn’t cut out for.

Or maybe the Heat just made every shot. They shot a preposterous 51 percent from three and perhaps the 17 percent gap between the Celtics’ pedestrian 34% played a larger factor in the seven-point loss than any adjustments Mazzulla and Spoelstra did or didn’t make.

But that didn’t matter, not to Jacoby, not to Celtics fans, and not to me. Mazzulla had, henceforth, been “out-coached,” and no further discussion was necessary.

Boston Celtics Practice

Photo By Matt Stone/Boston Herald

Since losing that series to the Heat, Mazzulla has taken history by the scruff of its neck and marched right back to where he failed. His Celtics obliterated the NBA during the regular season on their way to a 64-18 record, buried the Heat in the first round, smacked the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games and swept the Indiana Pacers—as was foretold—to make their second NBA Finals in three seasons after dropping just two total games on the way.

Mazzulla is now the winningest coach in NBA history among those with at least 150 games. He has won just under 75 percent of all games he’s stood on the sideline for, yet certain media members have still wondered — with varying degrees of (dis)respect — if he is actually up for the job.

“If you take his brain out, and you put it in a bird, the bird is going to start flying backwards,” said Kendrick Perkins after the 33-10 Celtics lost by two to the defending champion Denver Nuggets in January.

Perkins went on to accuse Mazzulla of asking his guys to play AAU basketball and failing to get them open looks. He decried the Celtics’ over-reliance on threes and accused them of not having “sets” on offense, and merely chucking shots and hoping enough of them go in to win.

But Mazzulla, not about to take a broadside lying down, came back the next day when asked if he had any updates on the Celtics’ nagging injuries.

“I’m a bird brain, you know I can’t do that.”

Those who have gotten to know Mazzulla over the last two years will find this response totally unsurprising. His incisive sarcasm and charm-and-disarm media personality have come to define his public persona, with his characteristic deadpan mixed in with wry smiles and an aura of complete control over the press room.

It’s worth wondering why those like Perkins and Jacoby feel the need to disparage Mazzulla when he boasts such an impressive resume. Other than winning a championship, he’s done nothing but succeed as a head coach, so do they simply believe he was the lone weak link on a team that should have won it all last season? Could minute rookie mistakes really have such a dramatic impact?

Perhaps it was really just the timeouts, but I’d wager most were quick to judge Mazzulla because they didn’t know him. The circumstances of his promotion were toxic, rapid and mysterious, with former Celtics and current Houston Rockets head coach Ime Udoka suspended by the team less than a month before the 2022-23 season began because of allegations he had an improper relationship with a Celtics employee.

The NBA world knew Udoka. Even after the loss to the Golden State Warriors, Udoka’s approval rating in Boston was high after leading the team to their first NBA Finals in over a decade. The future looked bright, and the acquisitions of Malcolm Brogdon and Danillo Gallinari looked like they could tip the scales. And then, on Sept. 22, 2022, Udoka’s misconduct came to light. In the blink of an eye, his Celtics tenure was over.

Naturally, everyone wondered who would replace the man who had just managed to return the Celtics to their historical stature. Top assistant Will Hardy had departed to take the Utah Jazz head coaching job, and the Celtics were out of time to hire someone new from out of town. The Celtics’ four remaining assistants were Mazzulla, Ben Sullivan, Aaron Miles, and Tony Dobbins.

And when Mazzulla was quickly announced as the head coach, most in Celtics circles had probably never heard of him. I hadn’t, and I’d consider myself in the 99th percentile of Celtics fanatics.

In his two seasons, he’s been immensely successful, putting together a resume that looks like the beginning of a legendary career. But nobody knew who he was, so the criticism and backseat-driving ambushed him on every corner. It wasn’t always unfounded, but it was certainly overdone. This team had just reached the Finals the previous year, and he was by far the biggest change. Not everything was his fault, but the buck would stop with him.

Thankfully, Mazzulla has spent the last two years getting to know us, and we’ve conversely found out a lot about the man that has the Celtics on the cusp of immortality. From his unconditional love of The Town to his declaration that the Celtics have no Batman or Robin, but are really just the Spider-Men from Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, Mazzulla has basically become the first NBA head coach driven by pop-culture references.

He’s driven by a lot more than that, though, including his devout Catholicism—signified by the cross he pins to his shirt every game—and his belief in the eternal self-betterment of the individual, from sleeping with his mouth taped shut to the “tribal leadership” championed by Phil Jackson.

But by far Mazzulla’s most publicly known (and viral) quality is his unique and often hilarious brand of weirdness. He speaks with an almost impossibly deadpan tone, staring directly into the reporters’ soul as he dispassionately gives whatever answer he thinks they deserve. CelticsBlog’s Jack Simone—an occasional receiver of these death stares—even proved that it can be difficult to distinguish actual Mazzulla quotes from AI generated responses.

“We don’t just shoot threes. We practice them, we study them, and when they fall, they’re a testament to our hard work,” Mazzulla said when asked if the Celtics settle for too many threes, a frequent topic of discussion in Celtics circles. Except he didn’t say that, Simone’s AI did.

“I told them that if they keep this up, I’ll have to sub myself in, and trust me, nobody wants to see that,” Mazzulla said in the midst of the Celtics’ massive deficit to the Detroit Pistons before they staged a furious comeback. “But on a serious note, we regrouped. Had a good laugh.” They did in fact regroup, but such an exchange never happened because Simone asked an AI to simply make that up.

And it’s not just quotes that can seem fake. Mazzulla may or may not have maintained a public Quizlet account to help him study scouting reports on opposing teams. To this day, no one knows for sure if it’s real, but would anyone actually be surprised if it was?

Another issue with Mazzulla’s early coverage was a lack of information about what the Celtics’ brass thought of him. Even on a Finals team, the third assistant is rarely the subject of media attention, and so Mazzulla’s weird awesomeness had no room to breathe. Nor did the apparently glowing opinions of him held by current and former Presidents of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge, the latter of which first hired Mazzulla.

“One way that I’ve always measured greatness is how much a person can learn from mistakes they make,” said Ainge to The Athletic in March of last year. “The coaches that learn and move on, they become the legendary coaches. And I think both Joe and Will [Hardy] have a chance to be those.”

Nevertheless, it’s Mazzulla’s cartoonish comedy that shines through all the praise and criticism. He was interviewed alongside Hardy for the Jazz’s open head coaching job, and Mazzulla — while acknowledging the many very valuable lessons he learned from the experience — also made a serious life decision about his fashion based on it.

“Never wear a suit ever again,” Mazzulla said to reporters about the lessons he took from the interview. “I wore a suit, and I was really uncomfortable. I’m really pissed I did that.”

Mazzulla’s comedic convictions exist on every plane of human culture. From movies — once stopping a press conference in its tracks to make sure reporters knew what his favorite scene from The Town was (it’s Doug MacRay leaving a handwritten note under Jon Hamm’s dashboard) to jiu-jitsu — something he’s described as “a way of life” for him — all the way to the utility of wearing a suit, he has thoughts and opinions on all of it.

But those thoughts aren’t just for him, nor are they performative. He actually harbors a deep skepticism of suits, shown by another exchange with CLNS’ Bobby Manning back in January.

Manning: “Joe they held you to thirty-nine percen…”

Mazzulla: “Are you wearing a tie?”

Manning: “Yes.”

Mazzulla: (eyes widen) “…wow”

2024 NBA Playoffs- Boston Celtics v Indiana Pacers

Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Quietly, this is Mazzulla’s magnum opus. Manning is asking an innocuous question about a shooting percentage, but there was something about the suit and tie Mazzulla couldn’t ignore for another moment. He had to address it immediately, and make sure Manning was aware of the dangerous game he was playing.

But does any of this actually make him a better coach? There’s certainly a correlation between instances of Mazzulla’s uniqueness and the Celtics winning, as the more we’ve gotten to know the man, the more successful the Celtics have been. That doesn’t mean it’s the cause, but it could be.

Mazzulla’s antics sometimes even show up on the court before he can even deliver another barn-burning press conference. In a home win over the Phoenix Suns, Royce O’Neale was lining up a deep three after a timeout was called, an after-the-whistle practice shot that is a common practice among NBA players.

But Mazzulla wasn’t about to let his opponent get an advantage, even if it was just mentally. He saw O’Neale set his feet and sprang into action to contest the shot, ignoring the facts that, first, the shot would not have counted, and secondly, he’s not actually a player on the Celtics. But who cares about such technicalities?

“One of [our] biggest pet peeves is just thinking that a guy is just going to get a free shot,” said Mazzulla of his heroic attempt to block the meaningless heave. “It’s just not the way it works, and if we’re gonna hold our team to a standard, we are going to hold the staff to the same thing.”

He was apparently then told by the league to stop doing that, which naturally did nothing but endear him to Celtics fans far and wide, as Bostonians are nothing if not committed to sticking it to authority since the 1770s. Mazzulla is also known to get a little loose in the huddle, reportedly telling some “pretty inappropriate” jokes in the third quarter of a game against the Wizards to lighten the negative vibe on the bench. Of course, no one would then say what they were, which means they must have been extra wild, even by Mazzulla standards.

So while he isn’t defined by this weirdness, it has come to shape the narratives around him. Mazzulla as the unknown third assistant has been replaced by the fascinating character of Mazzulla the head coach, complete with expansive media coverage and the uncovering of his bizarre eccentricities that came with the territory.

But one thing has defined him more than his oddball behavior: winning.

In sports, winning washes just about everything else away. Say the right things, say the wrong things, or say nothing at all. If you’re winning, you get the benefit of the doubt. If you’re not, then come the questions.

In the NBA, head coaches are losers until proven otherwise. Rookie coaches are given a leash approximately one inch long by their local and national media, quick to turn on their new hire if more than one singular thing goes wrong. Mazzulla led his team to the second seed and the Eastern Conference Finals in his first year on the job, but when disaster struck in Game 1, it was on.

That’s just the way it goes. Sensational overreactions don’t just draw clicks, they also make us feel powerful. The Celtics roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown was and still is constructed with very little flexibility. They are deep into the luxury tax and hamstrung by several expensive contracts that, should the Celtics need to rapidly pivot, would prevent them from doing so.

Fortunately, the Celtics do not need to pivot. All those contracts look like steals at best and solid values at worst. In a league where building a sustainable championship roster feels downright impossible, the Celtics have a young core and locked down pieces around them.

But when something goes wrong, the blame game fires up with a vengeance. Tatum, Brown and even most of the Celtics’ role players feel non-negotiable at this point, and so Mazzulla is the obvious target for anyone looking to make changes in Boston.

Through the criticism, Mazzulla is shouldering the entire weight of almost a decade of deferred expectations. The hope, belief and fear that comes with being the favorite has wreaked havoc on the psyche of Celtics fans, terrified of living in a reality where a team this talented doesn’t win a championship.

When Jacoby says Mazzulla is being “out-coached” and Perkins calls him a bird brain, it’s not necessarily personal. They’re merely grasping at straws for what could be wrong with this Celtics team that has failed repeatedly to convince the NBA world that they’re actually the best.

On paper, there’s no question, but will they ever prove it on the biggest stage?

The criticism of his timeouts, set plays, reliance on threes, rotations, assertiveness, demeanor, adjustments, or late-game tactics are unfair not because they are always wrong, but because they are often given under false pretenses. His critics levy demands that are meant for the Celtics in general, as they try to reconcile the numerical dominance with their lack of a championship.

Mazzulla’s second-year success has deflected some of these demands, but only one thing will lift that burden for good. Should the Celtics fail to hoist the Larry O’Brien in the coming weeks, Mazzulla will face another summer of questions and answers, and there won’t be enough movie quotes in the world to stop them.

But that doesn’t mean he won’t try. Mazzulla didn’t have any ace up his sleeve that got him to where he is now, and it’s through his often bizarre, sometimes quirky and always awesome demeanor that much of the NBA world has grown to respect him in the past year rather than question his every move.

Perhaps Mazzulla will “out-coach” Jason Kidd, or perhaps some reporter will ask him about out-coaching him and Mazzulla will respond with a metaphor about his favorite cheese, perhaps Gouda or Stilton, and what it means for modern player development before commenting on the reporter’s decision to wear plaid in 2024.

Or perhaps Mazzulla will just keep us guessing, as he always does. Until the final buzzer of the Celtics’ journey sounds, we’ll almost certainly have more questions than answers.

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