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Damon Stoudamire’s last-minute coaching chance led to more than just a win

After an eye ailment knocked Joe Mazzulla out of the game, the Celtics assistant coach got a chance to lead the Celtics on Tuesday night.

Houston Rockets v Boston Celtics Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

BOSTON – Joe Mazzulla was a last-minute scratch on Tuesday night with the Boston Celtics’ hosting the Houston Rockets. He was dealing with eye irritation and Damon Stoudamire took over as the head coach for the night.

Stoudamire admitted afterward that he only found out about the change “with about 10 [minutes] on the clock” pregame. Coincidentally, Stoudamire’s mother was in town for Christmas and just so happened to be at TD Garden.

“My mother’s in town, so it probably caught her off guard when she came to the game.”

His mom had flown in from Las Vegas for the holidays, and her present ended up being the chance to watch her son coach his first NBA game. Stoudamire also noted that his eldest son was in town for the occasion as well, but once again, it was purely by chance. The former NBA point guard took over as the lead guy earlier this season when Mazzulla was ejected in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, but this was his first full-game opportunity.

“That felt good. Felt real good. Like I said, it’s really random. You find out these things spur of the moment. You just go out, and you coach, and I’ll probably check my phone, and they’ll be a lot of people saying, ‘I didn’t know.’”

Stoudamire’s debut couldn’t have gone much better. Despite a slow offensive start in the first half, the Celtics picked up the pace in the third and fourth quarters, leading to a 126-102 win over the rebuilding Rockets.

The ever-humble Stoudamire refused to take credit for the win. Instead, he pointed toward the rest of Boston’s coaching staff. He said that they have put together gameplans all year, and while he took in the moment a bit after the game, he was more excited to celebrate the win with his colleagues.

“Honestly, I did, but I didn’t [take in the moment]. And I think that probably the most I took it in was at the end. But I just wanted to sit down with the rest of the fellas, the coaching staff. Because like I said, it’s a collaborative effort… It was fun being around them and enjoying this victory with them.”

Those weren’t the only coaches who Stoudamire was able to enjoy the night with. He also had some connections on the Houston bench in Lionel Hollins and John Lucas II. Stoudamire spoke about his connections to both former head coaches and how much it meant to have them present for the big night.

“It’s crazy because, on the other bench, Lionel Hollins is an assistant with the Houston Rockets, and he gave me my first job in the NBA before I went back to college. And then John Lucas, I worked down with John as a player for over 20 years. I had a place in Houston forever. Those guys being over on the bench, that meant a lot to me as well. Actually, after the game, Lionel said, ‘when we was talking [before the game], you didn’t tell me that you were coaching.’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t know.’ Again, because everything just happened so quick.”

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown gave Stoudamire plenty of help in his coaching debut. The Celtics duo combined to score 77 points (39 for Brown, 38 for Tatum), with the only other Celtic cracking double-digits being Robert Williams (11 points).

The 49-year-old coach had nothing but praise for Tatum and Brown after the game. He said that they’ve gone from being the young, hungry kids who were excited to play against their idols to the stars that other NBA players idolize today.

“It’s funny because I haven’t obviously been here that long, so all the noise of the different things I hear before I got here, I haven’t seen any of it… I think it’s maturity. I think they understand exactly who they are as players, and I think they want more... I use this analogy a lot - it’s almost like, when you first get into the NBA, you’re playing against your idol. So, what do you do? You go get a good meal, you get your haircut, and you get some rest. But Jayson, Jaylen, they’re those guys now… They’re the barometer in a lot of different ways… As I say a lot, when they play well, they allow the other guys to play well.”

Both Tatum and Brown will be gunning for All-NBA selections this year, as they’re putting up career-high numbers in a lot of different categories, one of which being points per game (both setting career-best marks).

Brown said that Stoudamire “did well,” especially considering how wildly unprepared he was for the moment. He also stated that the assistant coach is one of his “favorite people” in the Celtics organization.

“Damon is one of my favorite people in the organization. Just a veteran. A lot of experiences in different places… It was fun to go out and get a win for him.”

This is just Stoudamire’s second season in Boston, as he joined the team when Ime Udoka was hired last season. He’s taken on a big-time role on the bench, however, as he can constantly be seen in the inner circle of coaches. That was the case last year with Udoka, and as evidenced by his opportunity against Houston, he seems to be second-in-command this year as well.

Tatum shared a similar sentiment when asked about Stoudamire’s performance, going a bit deeper about what he brings to the table on Boston’s coaching staff.

“He just keeps everything balanced. He keeps everything in perspective. He played in the league for a long time, so he knows what it’s like to be on a road trip… He knows what it’s like to be in a slump… That’s very valuable.”

Stoudamire spent 13 years in the league with four different franchises and holds career averages of 13.4 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 6.1 assists on 40.6% shooting from the field and 35.7% shooting from deep. He made the playoff seven times including two Western Conference Finals runs with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Tatum and Brown aren’t the only people who received recognition from Stoudamire after the contest. The coach also gave Marcus Smart his flowers, as the point guard has played a crucial role for the Celtics this season.

He said that he’s seen a ton of growth in Smart’s maturity and that, not only has he loved coaching Smart, but he’s also gotten a lot of help from the Celtics veteran.

“I think, for me with Marcus, I’ve seen Marcus play since he was at Flower Mount High School... I’ve seen them kind of grow up… I think Marcus has been really, really good this year. He’s passing the ball, he’s hitting timely shots, he’s anchoring, he’s being a leader… To me, I see the growth in him in maturity in this short period of time…I love being around him, I love coaching him. He’s been real fun, and he’s helped me a lot, too.”

Smart ended the night with nine points, six assists, and three steals in the win over the Rockets, and over the last three games, he’s been averaging eight assists per contest. He’s averaging a career-high 7.3 assists this season.

While Stoudamire may not have been ready for the opportunity full-time, he made the most of it, and he got to live out a dream (if only for a night) in front of his family. But above all, his main focus was simple: don’t mess anything up.

“Just go out there and do what we’ve been doing. We put together gameplans as a staff, obviously. We pretty much know what we want to do… But it’s a collaborative effort. It’s been like this all season. For me, it’s just a matter of, truly, not messing it up.”

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