The Celtics’ preseason-opening 134-93 thumping of the Charlotte Hornets Sunday afternoon was a welcome visceral reminder that the defending Eastern Conference champions will be a force to be reckoned with once the real season begins, provided they can avoid further chaos of various kinds.
Thirty-four-year-old Joe Mazzulla looked cool and composed in his move from the second row of assistants to the front-and-center head coach’s seat in the aftermath of Ime Udoka’s self-destructive disgrace that left him suspended for the season and highly unlikely ever to coach the Celtics again.
Jayson Tatum looks like he spent the summer throwing around barbells and swearing vengeance on his enemies and doubters, while Jaylen Brown appears to have come back with more polish to his game, which is an admirable sort of tradition for him.
Malcolm Brogdon, who had nine assists, began confirming the popular notion that he is everything the Celtics needed, and had he been here in June, a banner-raising ceremony might have been in order for opening night. And hey, that Sam Hauser might be able to shoot it a little.
The opener, and the brief four-game preseason as a whole that continued Wednesday night against the Raptors, offers a chance to exhale after that aforementioned stretch of chaos and, in the most jarring instance, turmoil.
Udoka’s suspension for violations of team policies after having what was reported to be “an improper consensual relationship with a female member of the organization” rattled the franchise to its core. While Celtics ownership and management appear to have treated the situation with proper seriousness, the specifics remain vague and the speculation rampant. It’s not going away, nor should it.
The news actually related to basketball wasn’t great, either. Sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari, a free agent signing, blew out his left anterior cruciate ligament while playing for Italy in the World Cup qualifiers. Then we learned that Robert Williams, the Celtics’ defensive fulcrum, needed further “cleanup” in his left knee, which required surgery for a torn meniscus at the end of March.
Williams returned for the final two games of the Celtics’ first-round sweep of the Nets and had his moments in the postseason, but he wasn’t the usual detonating dunker near the rim. Now, he’ll be out 8-12 weeks. This week, the Celtics brought in six-time All-Star Blake Griffin as a depth piece while Williams is out. Though Griffin these days can’t jump over a skateboard, let alone a Kia, he seems a good fit, a smart player with a self-deprecating sense of humor who knows who and what he is at this point in his career.
When Griffin spoke to the media Monday, he noted with a smile that he played against Mazzulla in college. It was a wry, offhand comment, but it did remind me of my biggest concern about this team, beyond the common fear of a plague of injuries.
Does Mazzulla have the gravitas to give these players a kick in the shorts when they need one?
Udoka’s greatest strength as a coach was his ability to get through, with blunt and colorful language, to a group of players that can be stubborn in their bad habits and had a history of devolving when things started to go wrong.
Heck, the season itself was a tribute to Udoka’s resoluteness in getting his team to play the way he demanded. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team in any sport play in such a consistently maddening manner for essentially half a season before finally heeding their coach’s lessons and demands, consciously trying to break longstanding bad habits, and completely turning their situation around.
It was as surprising as it was remarkable. The Celtics fell to 18-21 on Jan. 6 after blowing a 25-point lead to the Knicks — the Knicks! — and losing on a banked-in RJ Barrett 3-pointer at the buzzer. It was the Celtics’ fourth loss after holding at least a 19-point lead in a game, and Udoka did not mince words afterward.
“I think it’s a lack of mental toughness to fight through those adverse times,” Udoka said. “It’s across the board. It’s a turnover here, a bad shot here, a missed defensive assignment here, and several missed rebounds tonight. So it’s a lot of different things.”
It wasn’t the first time he spoke the harsh truth about his team, but something changed after that loss. The Celtics won seven of their next 11, then followed that with a nine-game winning streak. After the Knicks loss, they were 11th in the Eastern Conference, behind the likes of the Knicks and Wizards. Thirty-three wins, 10 losses, a couple of roster tweaks, and one teamwide commitment to cohesion later, and the Celtics ended up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Bad habits did creep back in at times. Udoka had to tell them to knock off griping at the referees after Game 3 of the Finals, a game that they won, and they never really mastered the art of protecting the basketball, committing 55 turnovers over the last three games of the Finals, all losses. But they had a rather magical run before the abrupt ending two wins shy of a championship, and Udoka’s ability to get them to listen was essential.
Will Mazzulla be able to do the same? I can’t imagine he will to the same degree. Udoka, who played in the league and coached under Gregg Popovich, commanded their respect. It’s not fair to keep noting that Mazzulla’s only significant head coaching experience was two seasons at Division 2 Fairmont State … but his only significant head coaching experience was two seasons at Division 2 Fairmont State.
We do know the players like him and respect his basketball intelligence. That’s a good place to start. We don’t know how they’ll respond when he’s lighting them up for mistakes and they don’t particularly like him at that moment.
The Celtics were often spectacular in their preseason opener. They also turned the ball over 23 times. It’s safe to assume Mazzulla let them know that isn’t acceptable. Here’s hoping they listened, and intend to keep doing so right through June.