A look at a unique approach by Joe Mazzulla that is paying off for the Celtics


Boston’s top six, featuring Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porzingis, Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, and Al Horford, boast an impressive collective resume with a combined 3,707 career starts, including the postseason. Together, they have accumulated 14 All-Star appearances, five All-NBA selections, and seven All-Defensive team honors.

Undoubtedly, Boston’s top six have witnessed plenty of NBA action and have achieved remarkable success along the way. The extensive experience from Boston’s top six is an advantage Joe Mazzulla is taking advantage of.

A standout example is Holiday, a 14-year vet acquired by the Celtics from the Portland Trailblazers on the eve of training camp. Throughout his NBA career, Holiday has appeared in 987 games, earning five All-Defensive team honors and winning an NBA Finals on the way.

Holiday is one of the best defenders in the league. The 6-foot-4 guard has totaled 12 blocks through the first 11 games, tied for the most by any guard. Holiday has also posted a 102.7 defensive rating this season, tied for a team-high with Jayson Tatum and ranking seventh among players averaging at least 20 minutes per game with at least five appearances.

Given his success and extensive basketball IQ on the defensive end of the floor, Holiday has served as the defensive maestro for the Celtics this season, taking on a communicative role on the defensive end.

“Kinda just be safety. Kinda tell guys what I see, talk to Joe about it too, and tell him what I see, and go from there, if we wanna go zone, or if we’re switching, if we’re staying connected to our man, whatever it is,” Holiday said when explaining his role as the quarterback of Boston’s defense.

“I feel like Joe [Mazzulla] and the coaching staff have empowered me to kinda see through a different lens where before, I didn’t have to worry about that, whatever the coach would say defensively, that’s what would happen. I think by him [Mazzulla] doing that, it empowers us to be like, we really have to be in tune with the game,” Holiday added.

So far, it’s worked for Mazzulla and the Celtics. Boston has posted a 104.0 defensive rating with Holiday on the floor, which is in the 96th percentile of the league according to Cleaning The Glass.

“I give him most of it,”  Mazzulla said when discussing the responsibility he has given Holiday vocally on the defensive end. “I have different conversations with different players about different things throughout the game.”

‘With him [Holiday], it’s more about where are we at defensively, what can we do to change the flow or the rhythm of the game, and he’s really taken on the empowerment and the responsibility of that. I think when you have a guy of his caliber and his versatility, you gotta use it in different ways, and he’s done a great job of spearheading that.”

Player empowerment has been a building block in Mazzulla's coaching philosophies.

“I try to do that with our guys. I try to have free-flowing conversations. They’re the ones that have to execute, they’re really smart, and they pay a lot of attention as well. So, I  think it’s fun,” Mazzulla said prior to his team’s 117-107 win over the Philadelphia 76ers.

“I think if you have a group of guys that are competing as hard as they do and you have to play over and over and over again, you gotta have a sense of joy and passion and fun towards it, and if you can empower them to develop ownership like they are the ones making decisions, I think it breeds accountability, and it breeds them playing at a different type of level,” Boston’s bench boss added.

Mazzulla has embraced a unique, collaborative approach since assuming the role of head coach. Under Mazzulla, the collaborative approach spans all throughout the organization.

Notably, Mazzulla mentioned the team took a tribal leadership approach in training camp,  communicating in groups of threes and fours rather than one-on-one, having an offensive team and a defensive team.

“I think that’s a gift players are always looking for in the league. The sense of empowerment,” Mazzulla said. “When you see player empowerment, you get the success that guys have.”

“It’s a lot of fun watching them come up with certain things, whether it’s a small tactic or a small change, and I think it breeds communication too,” Mazzulla added. “I think it’s a fun way to play, and I enjoy watching them do it.”

As Holiday noted, the loose environment Mazzulla provides to his players isn't the case with other teams around the league. However, it has worked for Boston, as the C's currently sit at 9-2 and top-three in both offensive and defensive rating.

Much has been made about the coaching staff additions the Celtics made this offseason -- Adding Sam Cassell, Charles Lee, and Amile Jefferson. The new additions to the coaching staff, paired with the empowerment of his players, have been a perfect recipe for Mazzulla, who has been phenomenal in the early stages of the season.

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