After Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla entered the locker room for the first time as a winning coach following Boston’s season-opening 126-117 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night, he gave his players a few moments of praise and encouragement for a comprehensive performance against one of the franchise’s oldest and most bitter rivals.
Then, he paused.
“I don’t think he knew it was coming,” Jaylen Brown would later say with a smile.
The “it” Brown was referring to was the water bottle shower he and the rest of his teammates gave their coach to celebrate his first victory — which was immediately followed by Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck presenting Mazzulla with the game ball. For a team that has been through quite a bit over the past several weeks since Celtics head coach Ime Udoka was suspended for the season just days before training camp, it was a cathartic moment.
“I’m grateful for the relationship we have,” Mazzulla said. “These guys have been through a lot together, and they’re great players. So it’s just a matter of working together. So I appreciate their trust and buy-in, but they come up with a lot of good stuff as well and we kind of just figure it out.”
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The Celtics certainly figured out plenty Tuesday night, as they — quite literally — ran the 76ers off the famed parquet floor at TD Garden. With starting center and defensive anchor Robert Williams III out for the next couple of months, at least, following offseason knee surgery, the Celtics are going to be smaller and quicker than most opponents — and they certainly were against the 76ers, thanks to the presence of superstar center Joel Embiid.
Boston used that speed and quickness to its advantage Tuesday night, something Mazzulla and the Celtics have been focused on since the start of training camp. The Celtics outscored the 76ers 24-2 in fast-break points, making Philadelphia star James Harden (who had an eye-popping 35-point, 8-rebound, 7-assist line) look bad several times, in particular.
The result was a performance that saw Boston shoot over 60% over the final three quarters, erasing an early deficit to claim a comprehensive victory in front of a raucous home crowd on a night the franchise honored the late, great Bill Russell, whose No. 6 has been retired across the NBA following his death in July.
“Pace is the virtue of this team,” Celtics forward Grant Williams said. “We have a bunch of guys that can bring it, a bunch of guys that are playmakers for one another, and we trust everybody. We trust everybody to make the right decision, to make the right read, to make the right play. So that’s why we keep the ball ahead and we play freely. That encourages players to be who they are, and that allows a lot of freedom and opportunity. It makes everybody a threat.”
While everyone on the Celtics may be a threat, they were led Tuesday — like they often are — by their star wings Jayson Tatum and Brown. Tatum finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, while Brown had 35 points, three rebounds and three assists, making them the first teammates to each score 35 in a season opener since Hall of Famers Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain did it for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1969, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
“It was just in the flow,” Tatum said in describing his and Brown’s performances. “A lot of times we don’t necessarily call sets, and if we do, it’s kind of random sometimes, but it’s all about making the sacrificial cut or getting somebody else open, or passing up a good shot for a great shot, getting out in transition. The ball rewards in basketball, and the guys trust us to make the right play. The right play can be for ourselves sometimes or others, so I think it was just in the flow of the game tonight.”
Beyond Mazzulla’s debut, the other lingering image from the game was a dustup — not for the first time in their careers — between Embiid and Celtics guard Marcus Smart. Smart was called for a foul for defending Embiid, who appeared to hook Smart’s arm under his. After Smart fell to the ground following the foul call, he snatched at Embiid’s right leg as he began walking away.
Embiid then fell to the court himself, before Brown raced in to get involved. Eventually, however, the play resulted in personal and technical fouls being called on Smart — who was not happy with how it shook out.
“Went for a rebound. Basketball play. Went for the steal. Basketball play. Referee blows his whistle, calls a foul. I stop play, my arm’s still stuck in there and he tries to break it. And then I’m the only one who gets a tech?” Smart asked rhetorically.
“Everybody saw it. I don’t have to keep talking about it. If I did that, I’m probably ejected, suspended three games, four games, fined … but the fact that I was the only one that got I guess something out of that is kind of beyond me. Especially defending DPOY and that’s how he gets treated? It’s tough. But, like I said, it’s maturity. I could have cracked his head open but I didn’t. And that’s the maturity we have. So we move on from it. It is what it is. And we control what we can control.”
Ultimately, though, the dustup between Smart and Embiid was a brief moment of frustration in what largely was a celebratory night for the Celtics — one that saw, to a man, every player praise Mazzulla for how he has led them through the past few weeks since Udoka was suspended for the season for violations of team policies.
Brown said he is “tough as nails.” Newcomer Malcolm Brogdon praised his even-keeled demeanor. Smart said it was apparent Mazzulla was “oozing” confidence.
“He wouldn’t have took any of the credit for tonight, but the thing that I like about Joe and admire about him is that he’s very honest that he doesn’t know everything,” Tatum said. “He wants us to help him out as much as he’s helping us out. It’s like we’re in a relationship, and we’re all on the same page and trying to accomplish the same thing. We’re all in this together.”
The version of the Celtics that came together Tuesday night was one that looked more than capable of repeating as Eastern Conference champions. But for Mazzulla, it was the first of what he, and the Celtics, hope will be many wins this season.
“It was a proud moment,” Mazzulla said. “I think it started with the Bill Russell ceremony and just talking to the team about the legacy he left on and off the court and the responsibility we carry to be able to hold that and build our own legacy.
“I think at the end of the game, the ‘Let’s go, Celtics’ chant, we picked up right where we left off. I pride myself in the Boston fans and the city of Boston, and when they’re cheering for you, it means you’re doing something right.”
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