The Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown-led Boston Celtics have been together for seven years, and they’ve had three different head coaches. The roster has changed, the ideologies have changed, and the expectations have changed, but Boston has adapted to the mindset of their leaders.
When Brad Stevens took over as the head coach of the Celtics in 2013, he inherited a team built to lose after dealing Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets. Brandon Bass led the team in win shares that season, and they missed the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
But Stevens brought them back to the postseason the very next year.
He exceeded expectations at every opportunity, turning what was supposed to be a rebuild into a perennial playoff presence. By the time Tatum and Brown began playing together, he helped an injured Celtics squad take LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Stevens was one of the best coaches in the league, and he helped the Celtics gain valuable experience, utilizing his elite basketball mind to propel the team forward.
Then, along came Ime Udoka.
Where Stevens brought tactics and a mild-mannered presence, Udoka brought fire. In the midst of a horrific start to the 2021-22 campaign, he consistently called out the team’s stars in public.
He stressed toughness and defense and intensity, and he never let the Celtics get away with slacking off. They turned their season around and made their first Finals birth since 2010.
Udoka helped the Celtics learn how to take criticism on the chin and turn it into an on-court energy that produced lasting results.
And now, there’s Joe Mazzulla.
Mazzulla’s first season as head coach was marred by drama and a lack of preparation. He was thrown into the fire right before training camp and forced to figure things out on the fly.
This season, with a whole year of experience and a productive offseason behind him, Mazzulla has slowly unveiled his coaching philosophy. The mindset that this current Celtics team has adopted.
Mentality over results.
After wins, the Celtics won’t get excited. After losses, they refuse to get deflated. Steadiness is the key to consistency.
“If we’re just going to sit back and be happy after every win, then that’s an unhealthy relationship with success, and it’s going to come back to bite us in the a**,” Mazzulla said after the Celtics’ January 13 win over the Houston Rockets. “The healthiest relationship to have with success is to understand that you can still get better, and so I think that’s the space that we have to live in.”
This ideology carries over to individuals, too. Slumps aren’t picked on, and mistakes aren’t punished. Everything can be used as a learning opportunity because that’s the only way to improve. Results aren’t the end-all, be-all. It’s about the process.
“I want to know if we can get to a point where we don’t lose the confidence,” Mazzulla said when discussing Derrick White’s recent shooting slump, which he snapped against the New Orleans Pelicans. “I think it’s — we shouldn’t lose confidence. That’s a result-oriented approach, like, I don’t have confidence in myself.
“And I said that to him after the game. I was like, ‘Why would you not? You’ve delivered all the time. You’re one of our best players. We need you to be great.’ And I was like, ‘I’m not taking you out of the game. I’m not yelling at you. You have nothing to worry about.’”
Through every up and down of the Celtics season, Mazzulla has remained stonefaced. He’ll crack jokes with reporters, pick on The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn’s (supposed) gripe with Boston’s three-heavy offense, and call out Bobby Manning of CLNS for wearing a tie, but when it comes to the discourse surrounding the team, he’s preaching the same ideals as he did during training camp.
Living game-to-game will prevent Boston from getting bogged down in the narratives and storylines that could distract them from the ultimate goal.
“Very motivating, very exciting, of course,” Porzingis said at the beginning of October when asked about playing for a championship-level team. “And also a big responsibility. We all understand what our goal is, but we don’t want to only have that in our minds.
“As coach said yesterday in the first meeting, we have to live that lifestyle. We have to live that life day-to-day. We have to put in the work, and then, in the end, if we put in the work, we will achieve the results. But it has to be like a daily focus. Not always keeping only that big goal in our minds. We’re keeping that in mind.”
To Mazzulla, results come second to growth. And growth stems from going through learning experiences.
Obviously, that’s a luxury the Celtics can afford to have because of the talent level of their roster, but it’s also why Mazzulla is the perfect coach for this group at this time.
On Saturday, the Celtics got blown out by the LA Clippers. The final score showed a 19-point deficit, but Boston was down by as many as 36. They were outclassed in every sense of the word.
No one sulked, no one complained, and no one blamed anyone else. The Celtics took accountability for the loss, remained calm, and looked ahead to the next game. And Mazzulla embraced the loss.
“I think humility is always good,” Mazzulla said. “I think the world can probably learn a little thing or two about that, don’t you think?”
Losing may frustrate fans (and players), but it provides a rare, pivotal opportunity for this Celtics squad.
“Because we don’t lose a lot, the times that we do, we’re a little bit more attentive, and that’s where I say winning can be a distraction,” he said ahead of Boston’s game against New Orleans. “The hardest thing to do, I think, is continue to win and not know you have to get better as a team. You can just get comfortable, right? And again, like, are there lessons that you would learn if you were to win that game?
“I know it’s an unpopular thing to say. Where like, sometimes, if you win a game that you don’t think you deserve to win, it takes away from the lesson that you need to learn. And sometimes you lose a game that you think you deserve to win. So, like, the other day [the Clippers loss], it’s all about just taking the information and applying it to the next game.”
Then, against the Pelicans, the Celtics found themselves down by 17 in the second quarter, 10 heading into halftime, and staring down an 11-point deficit early in the fourth.
Instead of rolling over, Boston stayed the course. They ramped up their defensive pressure, shots started to fall, and they managed to climb all the way back, earning a 118-112 victory. It was ugly, it was messy, and it led to first-half boos from TD Garden.
And Mazzulla loved it.
“I just hope [a game like that] happens 10, 12 more times so we can get rid of the entitlement that we’re always supposed to be winning,” Mazzulla said. “So, I hope we have to blow leads. I hope all that happens. I really do. So, that’s what I think. I think it’s just like, at times, we’re just supposed to be winning all the time. And that’s just not the case. So, we have to stay the course. That’s the key.”
For the entirety of last season, Mazzulla was chastised by fans and media alike for his lack of timeouts. It was a harsh strategy that forced the Celtics players to find ways to win themselves.
Now, with a full season of experience under his belt, he may be calling more timeouts, but his materializes in other ways. Accepting and yearning for back-against-the-wall games is a perfect example.
“I hope we get 10 more [games like that],” Mazzulla said. “I don’t want to be in a position where everything goes our way. And so whatever we have to go through, whatever, it’s important for us. And I think the endurance (the Celtics can build) is a physical and a mental endurance. You have to learn how to win games all the time. You can’t take that piece for granted.”
With Stevens, it was the constant overachievement and on-court progression. With Udoka, it was the toughness. The ability to endure criticism and flip it into gritty wins.
Mazzulla is mentality.
Tatum is now a five-time All-Star. Brown has a good chance of making his third All-Star team this year. Porzingis is finally in a role where he can thrive, Jrue Holiday is leading a top-tier defense, and Derrick White is putting up career-high numbers across the board.
The Celtics have all the talent they need to win a championship. They just need to develop the right mindset.
“What do they say sports is?” Holiday pondered after Boston’s win over the Indiana Pacers on Tuesday. “10% physical, 90% mental? It’s the end of January, beginning of February. We know that teams are going to go through lulls, mentally and physically. It’s kind of like a stalemate. Mentally, you have to be able to come in every game and perform the way you’re supposed to. He [Mazzulla] preaches a lot of mentality, the ability to be strong mentally because obviously, down the road, when things get tough, you can always rely on that.”
It’s natural to get upset after a loss. It’s natural to want to press the issue when staring down a big deficit. It’s natural to take your foot off the gas after snatching a huge lead. None of those are on-court, basketball-centric issues but emotional reactions that affect the game.
That’s where Mazzulla’s value and impact on this Celtics team shine through.
“I think that it’s coaching, and then it’s just, like you said, intangible stuff like mentality,” Brown said. “And I think that, together, our team has tried to establish a standard. And that standard embodies a mentality.”
Prioritizing mentality above all else has become the philosophy of this team.
“I think Joe is very smart,” Porzingis said. “He is very mindset-driven. He knows how important the mindset and the mentality is. That’s just who he is, also. He does jiu-jitsu [and] plays chess. He’s always trying to evolve as a coach [and] as a person. He transmits that to us. He’s a young coach, but I think he’s very smart.”
Stevens’ tenure ended in a move to the front office. Udoka’s ended because of the consequences of his own mistakes. Both had a ton of success coaching the Celtics, but neither brought home a banner.
Mazzulla's entrance into the position and his place as a follow-up to a Finals appearance had led to heaps of slander. Every non-timeout, poor shooting night, and defensive lapse is blamed on him.
His new defensive schemes, increased emphasis on Boston’s post-game, and well-rounded offensive attack have spearheaded his on-court improvements, but they still pale in comparison to the biggest asset he brings to this group.
The Celtics have the talent, they have the experience, and they have the toughness. They’ve learned from their past. This is a team that’s ready to win right away.
They just need the right mindset to get them there. A player-first, even-keeled, steady mindset.
Mazzulla Ball? No. The Mazzulla Mindset.