November 30, 2022

Published: 11/22/2022 19:29:01

Modified: 2022-11-22 19:28:50

BOSTON — The Celtics entered the season with a built-in reason to underperform.

Ime Udoka, the man who so changed their culture and led them to the NBA Finals as freshman coach last season, received a year-long suspension prior to training camp for an inappropriate relationship with a woman in the organization.

But nearly a quarter into the schedule, Boston has emerged from that preseason cloud with an NBA-best 13-4 record and looks like a team still capable of capitalizing on its championship window.

Interim coach Joe Mazzulla excelled after he was initially seen as a temporary fixture while the front office found out when and if Udoka could return.

Jayson Tatum has played like he’s out to prove last season’s playoff shortcomings were an anomaly. And he’s gotten a lot of help from his supporting cast, rounding out a team that hasn’t been as prone to some of the late-game issues that befell last season until now.

“It’s night and day how we play at the beginning of this season compared to the beginning of last season,” Tatum said recently. “But every time we’ve made that change, I feel like we haven’t looked back.”

The Celtics’ best nine-game season win ended Monday in Chicago. But they will be back in the spotlight on Wednesday night for a clash with Dallas and the league’s top scorer Luka Doncic.

The Mavericks’ sharpshooter was largely unstoppable, averaging 33.5 points per game.

Tatum is not far behind, leading Boston and ranking sixth in the NBA with 30.2 points per game. He reaches the free-throw line 8.5 times per game in his career, which he attributes to an off-season plan designed to help him play more physically.

He’s also gotten better playing alongside Jaylen Brown, who averages 25.3 points. They play an offense that is second in the NBA in efficiency behind Sacramento.

“We have largely the same group. One or two new guys, but they really know how to play the game,” Tatum said. “So from day one of training camp, just trust each other that every time you move the ball, it will come back. That’s just how we keep playing and getting shots down.”

One of the new faces that made an impression was point guard Malcolm Brogdon. Picking up free agents leads an improved second unit and brings structure late into games that was sometimes lacking last season.

Mazzulla praises the work his players have done in incorporating the coaching they have received into games.

“It’s guys who understand what we’re trying to do with our organization, with our game management,” said Mazzulla. “The pictures we’re trying to take. The distance we try to have and the matchups we try to attack. It’s organized, it’s really smart.”

The coach also trusts his team.

Unlike Udoka or even former coach Brad Stevens, Mazzulla has often shown a hands-off approach when his team ran into trouble. He is slow to call timeouts when opponents go for a run.

The reactions of his players are positive.

“Not only does it challenge us to the situation ahead, but it also challenges us to get better down the line,” Brown said. “We have a balanced team. So that’s a lot of confidence from our head coach to educate his players and us to figure it out.”

And they all do it without big man Robert Williams, who is in the process of coming back from preseason knee surgery. He could return soon and add another dimension to a thriving team.

“I think offense is just better overall,” Tatum said. “And then our attention to detail when watching movies, dealing with those offensive situations in the late game and being aware of what we want to do and who we’re trying to put into action and things like that. It may look arbitrary, but we talk about it and know what we’re trying to do.”

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