With less than a minute and a half to play in Friday night’s In-Season Tournament game against the Raptors, the Celtics trailed by two. To that point, it was one of the Celtics’ poorest performances of the season, according to head coach Joe Mazzulla.
Then, Jrue Holiday went into facilitator mode, tallying three assists to set up Kristaps Porzingis (two jumpshots) and Derrick White (game-winning three) for consecutive buckets that sealed the deal.
“We really executed,” Joe Mazzulla said. “I thought one of the best things we did was our late-game execution. The last two minutes, we controlled it.”
A lot had already gone wrong for the visiting team. They had already blown a 16-point halftime lead. Jayson Tatum was 1 of 11 from three. Four of five starters (shoutout Jaylen Brown) shot below 50% from the field. And Pascal Siakam got pretty much everything he wanted in the second half.
Still, they found a way to gut this one out.
“It was the first time all year where we just weren’t the best version of ourselves,” Joe Mazzulla said. “But, that’s going to happen, especially with 70 games left.”
How did they overcome that?
With 90 seconds to go, Holiday drove to the basket and dished it to Porzingis for a turnaround jump shot that tied up the game at 101. The duo ran the same pick-and-roll on the subsequent possession, and once again, a Holiday-assisted Porzingis jumper tied the ballgame.
“It’s another look that we can give teams late on,” Porzingis said. “Of course, we want to get the ball in JB’s and JT’s hands, but if we have something else to go to, boom. Smaller guards, pick-and-roll with me, if they switch, we can make them pay there, or if they switch and have a five [center] on one of these guys, they’re going to make them pay also.”
For the game-winning bucket, Holiday drove to the basket, spurred the defense to collapse, and kicked it out to a wide-open Derrick White, who hit a clutch go-ahead three-pointer that gave the Celtics the lead for good. Calm, cool, and collected. Scottie Barnes missed a potential game-tying three, and the Celtics got the W.
Mazzulla said the group viewed the game as an opportunity to overcome adversity and stay engaged, even when things weren’t necessarily going well.
“Every timeout, that’s all we talked about — ‘we’re not playing great, but we’re still in it. Can we chip away at it? Can we get a couple of stops?’” Mazzulla said. “Jrue dives on the floor for a loose ball, JB gets a block-out off of a missed free throw, JB and JT stay spaced, and Jrue and KP go to a two-man game for a shot. We were just able to learn a lot of things and simulate a lot of things that we haven’t been able to simulate yet.”
Jaylen Brown was the Celtics’ lone efficient scorer in the starting unit. He finished with a team-high 23 points on 9-14 shooting, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, a block, and a steal.
“We just kept playing, played all the way through,” Brown said. “We kind of sucked tonight, we didn’t play our best. But we figured out how to win anyway. “
The way to win included another strong performance from Sam Hauser, who had 11 points, 3 assists, 3 rebounds, and some stellar defense moments. Horford also poured in 11, including 3 of 4 threes, and Porzingis and Holiday finished with 14 points apiece. Derrick White had 13 points, including the biggest ones of the night.
“Jaylen and Jayson did a great job of playing team basketball throughout the game,” Mazzulla said. “I thought Jaylen did a great job — the game came easy to him, he took good shots.”
Tatum struggled from the field, finishing with 17 points on 8-22 shooting, but he, alongside the rest of the group, remained poised.
“It just happens,” Mazzulla said of the team’s off-night. “That’s going to happen 10-12 times a year. We just got to build the tools of when we’re not, what it looks like. We saw some really good possessions defensively. We weathered a couple of runs.”
And while blowout wins are nice, nail-biters are an opportunity for a newly-assembled Celtics team to iron out the wrinkles of what a late-game offense can look like at its very best.
“We’ll go back and look at all the reasons why [we struggled], but at the end of the day, we played against a really good team at home, and the best thing they do is go on runs, especially in the third quarter,” Mazzulla said. “I thought they made some tough shots, I thought they hit some threes. Siakam played really well. I wanted us to feel all of those emotions.”
Neither Tatum nor Brown scored in the final three minutes. Normally, that’s not a good recipe. Tonight, the offseason acquisitions stepped up and the Celtics improved to a league-best 10-2 record.
“It was the Jrue-KP pick-and-roll when we needed it most,” Mazzulla said. “It says a lot about Jaylen and Jayson and it says a lot about our team. We have Jrue, KP, and D-White bringing us home, and that’s going to happen. We’re going to need all of those guys.”