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‘Anything it takes': Inside Joe Mazzulla's fierce competitive streak

It’s mid-May 2023, there are still four hours before the Boston Celtics tip off a home playoff game, and the court in front of the Boston bench at a nearly empty TD Garden already resembles some combination of a basketball game and a WWE Royal Rumble.

Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla and members of his coaching staff are engaging in a half-court pickup game that sometimes feels more intense than the featured attraction scheduled later that night. There is a lot of screaming. Bodies appear to flail in every direction. Members of the dance team loosening up nearby seem concerned for their safety.

“It was tackle football,” confirmed former Celtics assistant Alex Barlow, who jumped into last year’s playoff pickup games after coaching the Maine Celtics. “I loved it because I like physicality and Joe loves physicality. But he just wants to win. He wants to do anything and everything it takes to win. And that’s, honestly, what I respect most about him.”

Footage from a January 2023 coaches game had already found its way onto a national TV broadcast and featured Mazzulla 1) dragging an assistant to the ground by his arm trying to fight for position in the paint and 2) hitting the same staffer with basically a double axe-handle while defending a 3-pointer.

No one is quite sure if any infractions were whistled. No blood, no foul.

Fast forward to Thursday night: The Celtics were up 18 on the Phoenix Suns with under three minutes to play when Mazzulla elected to contest a Royce O’Neale post-whistle 3-pointer in front of the Boston bench. Poor O’Neale was 0-for-7 on the night, and even with victory all but secured, Mazzulla wasn’t taking any chances that an opposing player might find a rhythm.

It was Kevin Garnett, maybe the most ruthless competitor in league history, who popularized blocking shots after the whistle. Two decades later, Mazzulla might be setting a new trend for coaches.

The mere sight of Mazzulla launching towards an opposing shooter was both jarring and hilarious. But after the game, Mazzulla reiterated Boston’s team rule that no one takes rhythm-seeking shots in front of the Celtics bench.

Added Mazzulla: “If I’m going to ask the guys to contest, staff has to do the same.”

This surely wasn’t the the first sideline glimpse of Mazzulla’s in-game competitiveness. There have been instances over the last two seasons in which a loose ball rolled his way, leading to a tug-of-war with an opposing player, particularly when Mazzulla desired a quick restart to allow his team to attack an unset defense.

And these moments hardly surprise his players.

“Joe being Joe,” shrugged Tatum after Thursday’s win.

Barlow can’t stress enough just how competitive Mazzulla can be.

“I know how badly he wants to win,” said Barlow. “I think he wants to win more than probably anybody in that entire organization.”

Barlow, now an assistant at Butler University, enjoys listening to soundbites from Mazzulla’s press conferences. When Mazzulla playfully jabs reporters for questioning his team’s philosophies or bristles at questions following a tough loss, Barlow knows that’s simply Mazzulla’s competitiveness coming through in his responses.

Inside the walls at Butler University, they still love to tell stories about how unflappable Brad Stevens was as coach there. Stevens’ ability to walk stoically to center court and shake an opposing coach’s hand while the rest of his team celebrated a jubilant game-winner is recalled often. So there’s an obvious juxtaposition between the even-keeled Stevens and the shot-contesting Mazzulla.

(To be fair, Stevens famously pump-faked a pull-up 3-pointer in front of the Boston bench in Sacramento after a goaltending call during one of his final seasons as coach of the Celtics).

Stevens might be slightly more measured in his public interactions, but both he and Mazzulla are clearly hellbent on securing Banner 18. Mazzulla’s competitiveness endeared him to Stevens when selecting a new head coach in the fall of 2022.

Mazzulla is slowly endearing himself to a Celtics fan base that has lofty expectations, particularly given the successes of the coaches that came immediately before him. Some have quibbled with Mazzulla’s timeout usage, his lineup decisions, and the team’s love of the 3-point shot. But Mazzulla has guided this talent-filled roster that Stevens delivered to the NBA’s best record, which includes a 9.5-game lead in the East with 16 games to play.

What the Celtics do in May and June — and we don’t meant those pregame pickup runs — will define how Mazzulla — and the season as a whole — is graded.

Still, contesting O’Neale’s jumper might be the quickest pathway to truly winning this city’s heart. Short of walking around with a cup of Dunkin’ glued to your palm and swearing at other drivers, nothing confirms a Boston mentality quite like a win-at-all-costs attitude.

Mazzulla will do anything to win. Just asks anyone who still has the bruises from those pickup games.

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