Summer 2024

Head coach Joe Mazzulla leads Celtics back to NBA Finals, says it's 'where God has us'

For the 23rd time in their storied history, the Boston Celtics are headed back to the NBA Finals.

Second-year head coach Joe Mazzulla led his team to a four-game sweep of the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, which the Celtics completed with a come-from-behind victory, 105-102, on Monday night in Indianapolis.

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During the trophy presentation after the win, Mazzulla was asked by ESPN’s Lisa Salters why this time is the right time for the Celtics to advance to the NBA Finals.

“It’s just where God has us right now,” he said. “We’re all exactly where we’re supposed to be, and right now everyone’s mindset is on helping each other and winning.”

Boston has been one of the most successful franchises in the league over the past decade reaching six of the last eight Eastern Conference Finals yet the team hasn’t been able to break through to capture what would be a record 18th NBA title. Before this season, the Celtics advanced to the NBA Finals just once in that span, in 2021-22, with many of the same key players. There, they fell to the Golden State Warriors.

The Celtics’ last league championship came in 2007-08, and before that it had been since 1985-86 when basketball legend Larry Bird ran the show.

In three of the four games against the Pacers, the Celtics trailed late into the fourth quarter. Each time, however, they pulled out a win in the end. Mazzulla believes the hard-fought sweep has prepared his team for the Finals, which will begin June 6 against the winner of the Western Conference Finals between the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves.

“A game [doesn’t always] go a certain type of way,” Mazzulla said in his postgame press conference, “and you gotta find different ways to win. You gotta learn to protect leads. You gotta learn to come back from deficits. You have to learn to execute in close-game situations. You have to communicate adjustments, and you just gotta make plays. You gotta be tough-minded.

“As many different situations as we can put ourselves in heading into this last round, it’s important.”

Mazzulla is only 35 years old (younger than Celtics veteran center Al Horford) but has quickly earned the respect of the locker room. He was named interim head coach shortly before the start of the 2022-23 season, led Boston to an 18-4 start, and in February 2023 the Celtics front office removed Mazzulla’s interim tag and signed him to a contract extension. The team won 57 games a year ago and Mazzulla was a Coach of the Year finalist, but Boston bowed out in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Miami Heat.

In 2023-24, Mazzulla improved upon last year’s performance, leading Boston to a league-best 64-18 record and the No. 1 overall seed.

Throughout his high-profile coaching success over the past two years, Mazzulla has been unashamed to talk about his faith in Christ. Memorably, that faith was on display just a couple of months into his new role. In a postgame press conference on Dec. 2, 2023, after Prince William and Kate Middleton attended a Celtics game, Mazzulla was asked if he met the Royal Family.

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph?” he asked, jokingly. “… I’m only familiar with one royal family.”

Mazzulla dealt with some legal issues while a college basketball player at West Virginia (2006-11). In 2008, he was charged with underage drinking and fighting with police, and in 2009, he was arrested for domestic battery. Yet he says that his faith has deepened in the years since as he’s been transformed by the new identity found in Christ.

“I’m not the same person that I was,” Mazzulla told WBZ News after being named Boston’s interim coach. “As you grow as a person, you’re constantly having to build an identity. I didn’t have one at a certain point in my life for whatever reason. You have to find a foundation, and for me that’s my faith.

“… My identity comes from my faith and my purpose. I got into coaching because I’ve had people pour into me, sacrifice for me, and I want to do that for my players.”

Mazzulla joined the Sports Spectrum Podcast last October, where he discussed basketball, the grace God has shown him, and humility in the face of his coaching successes.

“I really had to understand grace, and when I had the ability to understand grace, I understood surrender,” Mazzulla said on the podcast. “When I understood surrender, I understood the balance of pride and humility, where it plays into my heart and where it plays into my relationship with Christ.”

In addition to trusting in the finished work of Jesus for salvation, Mazzulla said he’s also been fascinated by the way Jesus led people.

“The part of [Christ] that I kind of resonate the most with is His leadership style and who He was just as a person. … Regardless of anything else, there’s a reason why 2,023 years later that there’s still people talking about Him. He did something right,” Mazzulla said. “Just learning from those leadership values is fun.”

He knows he’s in a position as head coach of the Boston Celtics, now with the platform of the NBA Finals, to glorify God in front of a watching world. He wants to make that world a better place, just as Christ has called every believer to do.

“God has given us all unique gifts, abilities, opportunities, and how do we use those for the better of people around us?” Mazzulla said on the podcast. “How do we use what God has given us to move your organization forward, move the world forward, just try to leave it a little better than you found it?”

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