Shortly before the start of training camp for the 2022-23 NBA season, the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics fell into startling controversy. Ime Udoka, a finalist for 2022 Coach of The Year honors after turning a hazily playing group into a 34-12 defensive juggernaut in the new year, was suddenly the subject of an investigation for matters unseen by the public eye. We still don’t know exactly what led to his eventual dismissal, and maybe never will. What happened next, though, is still happening.
Thirty-four-year-old Joe Mazzulla—younger than one of his starters, Al Horford—was thrust into Udoka’s job, promoted from his job as an assistant. The role may have gone to Will Hardy, instead, but he was hired away by the Utah Jazz. Hardy was not replaced; neither was Mazzulla. In February, the Celtics’ assistant coaching depth was hit further when Damon Stoudamire left for his own head coaching job, with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Mazzulla unlocked some historic stuff with the Celtics offense this season, igniting flashy enough scoring streaks that this brain drain went unnoticed.
That is not the case anymore. The Celtics are in the Conference Finals for the second straight season, but this time they’re getting hosed by a Miami Heat team that almost every analyst considers less talented. With Boston on the verge of getting summarily swept, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Co. are getting plenty of criticism for their ineffectual play, but it’s Mazzulla who’s become the lead character in this disappointment.
Had the Celtics done better in this round, Mazzulla still would’ve been a curiosity; conspicuous quotes and characteristics pour from him at an unusual rate. In a recent interview, he confessed to watching the 2010 action thriller The Town, a Boston-set, perverse Robin Hood affair, to raise his personal intensity levels. The movie is a good one to watch profusely—directed by Ben Affleck, it makes cliches sing in the same way that his more basketball-centric 2023 business drama Air does. It delights frequently, and digests easily. But it also happens to end in tragedy. Affleck and his pack of anti-hero bandits scheme one last job in a rush, which ends in arrests or death for most of them.
There is a twinge of martyrdom to the end of the film, not rightly earned by the plot or the drawing of the characters, and mostly just implied by the melancholic score and fridge-magnet poetry voice-over coda. Such messaging will not play with disgruntled Celtics fans and their outsized national media presence, if Mazzulla’s team does not manage to pick itself up enough to end their season with a little bravura. Victory is out of reach, but dignity is not. Boston has a chance to make it hard for the Heat, still, and whether or not they do could determine how similar the team looks heading into next season.
To this point, though, the team has not been able to display the same deadlocking defensive grit of last season for more than about a quarter at a time. After the scoring jubilee of November and December, they seem convinced they can kick their perimeter attack into turbo mode whenever they like—even though that unlikely, fleeting era was fueled by extraordinary shooting performances from players who are merely average, over the course of their careers, from beyond the arc. Once they got an extended taste of that blowout-rich style, though, a full transformation back into bulldog mode apparently became impossible.
With the season all but over, the real stakes for the Celtics belong in the summer. Brown is extension-eligible, and having made All-NBA marks this season, he’s due for a gargantuan bag of money. Retaining him long-term implies commitment to the Brown-Tatum marriage, and rumors about whether anyone on the team wants such a thing are starting to gallop. If they lay another egg and get fully swept by Miami, those whispers will be easier to believe. The Celtics are not providing us many clues to suggest that they want to travel this path anymore.