For the second game in a row, the Boston Celtics found themselves cornered without an escape. A West Coast road trip that began with a blowout win has now unraveled into two ugly losses, with their latest one coming against the LA Clippers by a score of 113-93.
Boston’s 93-point performance marked their lowest scoring total of the season and the first time they failed to crack the 100-point mark all year. But while the offensive failures were important to note, it’s another stat that stands out among the bunch.
Despite the loss, the Celtics’ top contributors all played roughly 30 minutes or more. By the end of the fourth, the game was completely out of reach, yet guys like Jayson Tatum (36:34), Jaylen Brown (29:41), Marcus Smart (31:39), and Malcolm Brogdon (31:28) all remained in the game.
In an interview before the season began, Tatum revealed that he was exhausted after the NBA Finals, and if the Celtics hope to make it back there, preserving their stars’ energy should be near the top of their priority list. However, in a mid-December game on the first night of a back-to-back (in a blowout loss), everyone played regular minutes.
Joe Mazzulla has become known for this sort of thing, but up to this point, he’s played his guys deep into games where the Celtics were the ones blowing the other team out of the water. This time around, he gave some reasoning for his decision. After the game, he noted that he wanted to make sure his guys stayed in a rhythm.
“I think it’s important. I trust the guys. I got their back. If things aren’t going well, I’m not going to do that. There is a time and a place for that but I felt like it was important for them to get their rhythm and keep their spirit heading into tomorrow’s game. I thought that was important.”
While the game obviously didn’t go according to plan, Brown did pick things up in the fourth quarter. He shot 4-for-4 from the field in the final frame. The rest of the squad didn’t play particularly well, but it was also the only period where Boston held the Clippers to 25 or fewer points.
The loss marked two games in a row where Boston couldn’t find their footing, as they suffered a similar fate against the Golden State Warriors over the weekend. That contest remained close until the last few minutes but ended in a 16-point defeat in which both Tatum (39:45) and Brown (37:13) played serious minutes.
At just 24 and 26 years old, the two Boston stars should be well-equipped to play heavy minutes. But at the same time, pushing them now could lead to poor results down the line when it really matters.
That being said, Brown said that he appreciated Mazzulla for leaving them in the game against the Clippers.
“We wasn’t playing basketball up to par, so I wouldn’t have been mad if he did. But I appreciate his decision to rock with us and we picked it up a little bit. Defensively, got some turnovers and I think that did help our confidence to end the night on a good note. ... Him letting us rock there for a little bit was not bad.”
Mazzulla caught some heat on social media for his decision to leave the starters in so late in the game, but Brown seemingly came to his defense. The star wing has been playing great basketball as of late, averaging 28.6 points over Boston’s last 10 games.
But Brown’s reasoning and top-notch play aside, Mazzulla has the Celtics playing a crazy number of minutes this year. Tatum (992.0) is currently second in the league in total minutes played, Brown is 13th (920.7), and Smart is 47th (821.5). And on top of that, both Tatum and Brown are playing more minutes per game than they ever have throughout their careers.
Perhaps the best indicator of Mazzulla’s minutes philosophy is Al Horford. Before the season, it was revealed that Horford would be sitting out on the second night of back-to-backs in an attempt to preserve him for the postseason. In turn, most expected him to take on a smaller role during the regular season in an attempt to save his energy. Instead, the 36-year-old big man is playing more minutes per game than he has since the 2017-18 season (his second year in Boston).
Robert Williams’ injury certainly affected Horford’s ability to rest, but regardless, at 36 years old, running him up and down the court at the highest rate in five years is a dangerous game to be playing on a title team on which he means so much.
So, while the players seem to be content with Mazzulla’s plans to play them deep into games, only time will tell whether or not it comes back to bite them.