BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla pulled into the same parking spot at Auerbach on Tuesday. He ran the same practice Ime Udoka did. The terminology stayed the same, with the offensive and defensive principles unchanged from the ones learned by this group over a winding 2021-22 season.
For a Celtics organization going through its most turbulent week in recent memory, basketball became the easy part this week. Mazzulla wasn’t sure what temperament to expect from a confused and shocked roster. He wouldn’t force players to do anything they weren’t ready for. The group, instead, greeted him with eagerness to begin, rallying around him for day one of his new job as interim head coach.
“Normally you have guys coming into training camp, depending on the year, they might not know the plays,” Grant Williams said. “Guys came in and knew the entire playbook. Guys came ready to start going at defensive concepts from the beginning. It was one of those things where everybody was attentive and everybody was ready. You could tell that everybody’s ready to go out there and play our first game. We could probably go out there right now and compete at a high level.”
Mazzulla’s three jobs in his role involve healing, building trust and helping players grow, he said this week, and the straightest path to all of those was keeping things simple on the court. Later, they’ll be able to build on the successes of last year and individual players can’t rest on the NBA Finals run, but why change what worked?
Boston, aside from Danilo Gallinari and Robert Williams III, fully participated in a competitive, attentive first practice considering the abbreviated live action. On day two, the team practiced touch defense and drop coverages, while switching in drills. Mazzulla, a wanderer at practice, jumped from station to station in his lone awkward moment.
“The structure was the same, the time was the same, the template of the drills was the same,” Mazzulla said on Monday. “As much as these guys can be comfortable, it’s going to help us. I tried to end today’s (practice) just being on the court. That’s something I miss. That’s something that I wanted to be able to do.”
“There are moments where I’m walking around like, ‘what am I supposed to be doing right now?’ But for the most part, I love being out there with the guys and they’re great guys. That’s where I find my joy and that’s where I want them to get theirs.”
Malcolm Brogdon worked with the bench unit, calling out actions for them while Marcus Smart stood opposite of him screaming out defensive reads. The one area the team will start over with is forming its own identity unique from last year’s run.
Mazzulla issued his first challenge to the group on Monday, telling the Celtics they aren’t Eastern Conference champions anymore. Last season ended, and now everyone has the same record. Al Horford answered, warning any opposing team that believes Boston is vulnerable.
Robert Williams III’s injury, to Mazzulla, is an opportunity for others. Positive mantras filled his first days of camp, calling both sessions great along with the past week he spent emphasizing communication. Ball movement became a big part of their activities. New players noticed a fluidity from the returning ones, always in the right position quickly.
Brogdon already lent Mazzulla assist by sacrificing the front line role he’s played recently in Indiana. There’ll be no controversy over Smart and Brogdon’s role for now. Luke Kornet gave the team starting minutes, instead of Brogdon, next to Horford at Monday’s practice, a combination Mazzulla told CelticsBlog he could see maintaining the size Boston played with last year — another area he hopes to maintain.
That left Derrick White on the second unit again, shooting confidently with less lean in his shot as he worked long after practice with Ben Sullivan, who’s apparently replaced Will Hardy walking White through his individual workouts. Payton Pritchard is practicing movement shooting and guarding wings. Grant expects to do a little bit of everything, while two-way center Mfiondu Kabengele brought badly-needed energy to the room.
Last year, the Celtics started from the ground level with plenty of new or unproven personnel, unfamiliar with Udoka’s new systems. They’d struggle through February.
Now, Grant believes this team is ready to compete at a high level today, with their coach sometimes going unnoticed with how locked in they played. Though Brogdon noted Mazzulla is already willing to get into Brown and Tatum when necessary, like Smart. Mazzulla indicated he’d lean on his players for leadership as much as he’d fill that void.
“It’s just a matter of carrying that throughout the entire week so that we show we’re truly engaged,” Grant said. “(Smart) was just attentive. You could tell his presence was here, on the switches and our different coverages. You saw how loud he was communicating, you knew he was here today and that’s something, as a leader, you love to see, because sometimes a leader can come in and can take the first day kind of lightly. He came in with great intensity from the jump. Credit to him and credit to everybody here.”