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Joe Mazzulla: ‘we have to learn how to win again’

After another frustrating loss amongst mounting defensive struggles and depth issues, Joe Mazzulla calls for the team to get back to the basics. Does he have a point?

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers 132-123 in overtime on Friday night, and it was in no small part to their defensive struggles and frontcourt depth. On a perfect day, the Cavs are a tough opponent with their monstrous frontcourt pairing of Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. But, for a Celtics team without defensive centerpiece Robert Williams and Swiss army man Grant Williams, a showdown against the uber-talented twin towers of Cleveland were an absolute nightmare matchup.

After falling behind early to a 22-9 deficit, the Celtics readjusted and surged back to take a 34-33 lead, closing out the first quarter on a 25-11 capped off by a buzzer beater three by Sam Hauser. By the time the first half ended, Boston had gained a 75-62 lead over Cleveland, and Jayson Tatum was heating up, scoring 24 points on 7-of-9 shooting, including 3-of-5 from beyond the arc.

Despite the turnaround, the Celtics found themselves on the wrong end of the new-look Cavs by the end of the night, with Cleveland outscoring Boston 52 to 39 in the second half on their way to their overtime victory. What happened?

“I think in the second half, we lost our pace, we lost our speed and ability to create separation,” said Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla. “We were still in a good position to win the game, but we didn’t make the winning plays down the stretch.... We can’t take anything for granted and so we had some empty possessions, we had turnovers and we had offensive rebounds given up. When you do those things, it puts you in a tough spot to win.”

Execution or lack thereof has been an issue in the early going for Boston, and anytime a team allows 24 points off 19 turnovers, it definitely makes it a lot harder. The Celtics also gave up 14 second chance points, but that’s not as surprising considering how thin their big man depth was. Outside of Al Horford (41:25 minutes), no other center on the roster cracked over fifteen minutes of floor time besides Luke Kornet who stared the second half (25:34). Grant Williams being suspended for contacting an official in the team’s loss to Chicago on Monday night only exacerbated issues that were already there, and further highlighted Boston’s serious center concerns with Rob sidelined.

“If we close out and rebound, we put ourselves in good position,” said Mazzulla on the Celtics allowing Caris Levert and Donovan Mitchell to score a combined 81 points. “We have to know out personnel, and at the same time, we have to learn how to win again. Each season, you come into it, you’re not guaranteed to win. So, it’s valuing the ball and it’s knowing tendencies, and it’s boxing out and rebounding, just the fundamentals. So, you just have to relearn them and then constantly do them.”

With all that being said, does Mazzulla have a valid point? Or can a good amount of these issues be chalked up to the center group without Robert Williams at its nucleus? The truth is most likely somewhere in between, as the team has been struggling on the defensive side of the ball even in their wins so far this season.

Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 15 of Boston’s 34 rebounds, and despite clearly heating up in the first quarter, Jayson Tatum went 3-of-8 in the second half. There should have been a concerted effort to feed him and fan the flames, but the Celtics inexplicably went away from whatever was working for them offensively in the first half.

While the team struggled as a whole, Marcus Smart’s offensive struggles continued as he went 3-of-15 from the field including 2-of-9 from deep, which was a team high in three-point attempts on the night. An open shot is an open shot, and you can’t fault Smart for taking them, but at what point does Mazzulla scheme to get better shooters open?

Tatum also went scoreless in the fourth quarter on 0-of-3 shooting, including the final possession where Smart dribbled out a good chunk of the time remaining and left Tatum with only six seconds to throw up a contested fadeaway jumper over two players. With a chance to win the game on the line, wouldn’t it have been prudent to call a timeout, communicate with one another, and get the best look possible? Based on the outcome, it certainly couldn’t have hurt.

The Celtics definitely need to clean up their defensive fundamentals to get back to their winning ways, but they’re also hamstrung by the limitations of their current big man rotation as well as the learning curve that comes with a rookie head coach.

Boston will have an opportunity to learn and regroup on Sunday against Washington (6 pm EST tipoff).

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