Danny Ainge has faith in Joe Mazzulla, thinks Celtics coach could be ‘legendary’

SALT LAKE CITY – Danny Ainge hinted there would be days like this.

Hours before the Celtics lost to the Jazz on a busted play in the final seconds, Ainge detailed to The Athletic why he believes so strongly in Boston coach Joe Mazzulla. Ainge did not say Mazzulla would be perfect every night. As Ainge pointed out, coaches never are. They make mistakes throughout a game. Iffy substitution patterns. Bad play calls. Misguided defensive strategies. Whatever the case may be.

“As a coach, you never get it right,” Ainge said. “It’s just like a player. You’re going to make a mistake, multiple mistakes in the same game, mistakes that you think may even cost your team a win here and there.”

Mazzulla might have felt that way Saturday night. On the final, busted play of a 118-117 loss to Utah, the Celtics wanted to put the ball into Jayson Tatum’s hands but everything fell apart. Mazzulla called for an inbound play that involved Grant Williams running a dribble handoff for Tatum, but the Jazz defended the action in such a way that Williams broke off the intended set. Instead of passing the ball to Tatum, he drove toward Jazz center Walker Kessler, one of the NBA’s best shot blockers. Williams gave a detailed explanation of his decision-making process. He had plenty of reasons for reacting the way he did. Even if they were all sound, Kessler denied Williams’ shot attempt. The disappointing defeat dropped the Celtics into third place in the Eastern Conference.

Mazzulla’s plan failed. Boston did not produce a clean look at the basketball on their final play. Beyond that, Mazzulla decided not to play Derrick White at all in the fourth quarter even with the Celtics missing three of their usual starters, including fellow guard Marcus Smart. White has consistently been one of Boston’s best players this season, but Mazzulla has often left him on the bench during key minutes.

As an All-NBA player, Tatum never sits during crunch time. He still somehow went scoreless throughout the entire second half against Utah, leaving him with just 15 points, his fourth-lowest total of the season.

“I don’t know if there’s regrets,” Mazzulla said when asked specifically about that. “But I think any time one of your best players doesn’t score (in a half) as a coach, you have to be better. …So I can definitely do better there. When you lose a close game, it could be anything.”

Even the best coaches make mistakes. Ainge believes Mazzulla will grow from his di lui. Though Ainge left Boston in June of 2021, he knows the 34-year-old coach’s abilities well.

The backstory of how the Celtics initially hired Mazzulla to Stevens’ coaching staff is neat. Familiar with Mazzulla after he served as an assistant for the Maine Red Claws during the 2016-17 season, the Celtics offered him a job on Stevens’ staff in 2018. Mazzulla declined to take it because he had already informed incoming recruits at Fairmont State, where he was the head coach at the time, that he wouldn’t be leaving school prior to the upcoming season. Ainge said the Celtics didn’t make any promises the gig would still be available for Mazzulla the following year but eventually did hire him at that time.

So Ainge had a significant history with Mazzulla even before considering him for the Jazz head coaching position over the offseason. Though Utah eventually picked Hardy instead, Ainge considered Mazzulla a legitimate candidate during the interview process and remains a big believer in Mazzulla as a coach afterward.

“I just always liked Joe’s work ethic, his focus, his intelligence,” Ainge said. “I feel like Joe is one of those guys — one way that I’ve always measured greatness is how much a person can learn from mistakes they make. Joe’s going to learn from his mistakes, just like Will Hardy learns from his mistakes quickly. … The coaches that learn and move on, they become the legendary coaches. And I think both Joe and Will have a chance to be those.”

After the Jazz selected Hardy as their head coach, he said he had significant interest in luring Mazzulla away from the Celtics to his staff. The two grew close last season during their lone year together as Boston assistants and left the experience with mutual respect for each other’s coaching acumen. But after the Jazz snagged Hardy, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck later said in a radio interview on “The Greg Hill Show” that he told them they couldn’t also hire away Mazzulla.

“Yeah, the Celtics, obviously they didn’t want to lose two coaches,” said Ainge. “Obviously they had plans for Joe and big plans for Joe which they should have. And I’m excited that he got this opportunity to coach even though it was under difficult circumstances.”

Ainge said Mazzulla has a great personality. Ainge also believes the young coach will start to show off a spicier side as he gains more experience.

“I think he’s got a good way about him as far as communication, a guy that is a good guy and a guy that’s well-respected,” Ainge said. “And yet I think he’s got the ability and especially as he matures I think a toughness about him that we’ll probably see emerge more and more in him as he matures as a coach.”

The Celtics haven’t played great basketball lately under Mazzulla, but Ainge has faith.

“I think Joe’s done an outstanding job and I think he’s going to be a great basketball coach,” Ainge said. “The next year he’s going to be a lot better and the year after that he’s going to be a lot better but it seems like he has a really good group of people around him and stafff around him. And he’s got Brad there, he’s got amazing experience. I think the team’s going to be right there in the hunt and have an opportunity to fulfill their dreams when the playoffs start if they can stay healthy.”

Ainge on everything else

As Robert Williams wrapped up a pregame three-on-three workout at Vivint Arena, his old boss approached for a brief chat. Not everybody is allowed to call the Celtics center Bob, a name he typically doesn’t enjoy, but he lets Ainge get away with it.

“I accept it,” Williams said later with a laugh. “Only from him, though.”

Ainge sometimes uses one of Williams’ preferred names, Rob. But when Williams is injured and out of the lineup, Ainge needles the big man by calling him Bob. That’s why Williams, who missed his eighth straight game Saturday, heard the latter moniker from the man who drafted him in 2018.

“It’s always good talking to DA, man,” Williams said. “Great guy.”

For Ainge, the Celtics’ trip to Utah presented a chance to bring back old jokes, meet up with old friends and watch in person the team he still follows closely throughout the year. Though he moved on from his role as Boston’s president of basketball operations in June 2021, Ainge, now the Jazz’s CEO of basketball operations, said he still watches “most of the (Celtics’) games.” He still has close ties with a long list of people in the Boston organization. He communicates regularly with many of them, including his son di lui Austin, Mike Zarren, Brad Stevens and Matt Reynolds, among others.

“These are so many of my guys and my people that are still working here,” Ainge said. “So I come here today, it’s just another reminder.”

A reminder of his connection to the organization where he spent 19 seasons as an executive and another eight as a player. Ainge won two championships with the team as a player, then another as a general manager in 2008. Two years after his departure, the roster is still loaded with players he drafted, including four of the team’s starters in Williams, Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. That’s part of the reason why Ainge openly admits to cheering for another team. He still cares for the people he left behind.

“I root hard for the Celtics,” Ainge said.

In Utah, Ainge said he has taken on a less demanding role.

“It’s a lot different,” Ainge said. “I don’t have to troubleshoot. I can sleep in until 10 or 11 if I need to. But no, it’s much different. It’s not near the same load that I’ve had before. I’m in load management. I get more golf in for sure. But it’s a good fit. We have a good staff here and I just try to help in the blind spots that they may have.”

Even while working for the Jazz, Ainge still has a unique perspective of many inner layers of the Celtics organization. He worked with most of the front office. He acquired many of the players. He chose Stevens as the Boston head coach in 2013, then hired Hardy away from the Boston staff this past offseason. Ainge believes the Jazz found a winner in Hardy.

“I like him,” Ainge said. “The combination of his work ethic but then how he’s able to just not be too high and too low. At the same time, he works hard at the games and before games. He works hard. He works on the fundamentals, trying to get things done right. And yet he has a personality to laugh at himself, a sense of humor that is fun and I think endearing to everybody, players and coaches. I think that his coaching staff has enjoyed working with him. And I think the players really respect him.”

Ainge has the beginning of a good thing in Utah. Still, he has enjoyed watching the growth of the young Boston core from afar.

“They had success early,” Ainge said. “Those guys were in conference finals as 19- and 20-year-olds, 20- and 21-year-olds too. So they had success early. You could tell they were going to be good early on. But they’ve continued to progress, just getting better and better. Decision-making, making passes on the move, realizing that they’re targeted players, they’ve gotta share with their teammates. I saw progress in that in playoff series early in their career but they’ve just gotten more and more consistent in those things that they’ve shown signs they can do. They’re complete players, both ends of the court. So I just think it’s been fun watching them and enjoying the success that they’ve had because they’re great kids and they work really hard at it.”

(Photo of Celtics’ coach Joe Mazzulla (back to camera) speaking to his players during a timeout against the Jazz: Rob Gray / USA Today)


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