BOSTON — Before the Boston Celtics’ In-Season Tournament game against the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, head coach Joe Mazzulla was asked whether he felt obligated to push for the point differential needed to advance. His response?
Fast forward three quarters later, and the Celtics’ starters were trotted back out onto the court with 7:34 to go in the fourth.
“We didn’t know we were going to be in that position to start the game,” Mazzulla said post-game. “And so, when we got to that point, I felt like it was time to execute and put ourselves in position to advance into the tournament.”
But the Celtics took the desire to win further than simply putting their starters back in the game. Once the starters reentered the contest, with the Celtics up by 31 points, they began fouling. More specifically, they fouled Andre Drummond.
For two possessions in a row, the Celtics played Hack-a-Drummond, sending the Bulls big man to the free-throw line, where he missed all four free throws he attempted.
“I didn’t like that,” Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said post-game.
Boston’s decision to intentionally foul Drummond led to an awkward moment mid-game. Mazzulla and Donovan were seen speaking at halfcourt as the Celtics coach was forced to explain their decision to send Drummond to the stripe.
“When I started the Hack-a-Drummond, Billy thought we had to win by 22, but he didn’t know the ramifications of what was going on in the Brooklyn-Toronto game. And so, I just had to explain to him, ‘This is what our people are telling us. This is what we have to do.’”
Mazzulla apologized to both Donovan and Drummond after the game.
Boston needed to win by at least 23 points and out-win the Brooklyn Nets by at least eight (but the Nets still had to win). Both of those scenarios came to fruition, but it brought to light some serious questions regarding the stipulations of the tournament.
After the Celtics’ win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, Jayson Tatum looked ahead to their contest against the Bulls. He admitted that he’s “not a fan” of the point differential part of the equation. And that’s exactly what came into play on Wednesday.
The Celtics were faced with a decision: push for points in hopes of advancing or accept the win and risk being eliminated. Obviously, they chose the former, as winning often trumps all, and a chance to win the inaugural In-Season Tournament is not something to pass up on.
But it still felt wrong.
“It’s tough because that’s just not how the game is supposed to be played,” said Jaylen Brown. “One, you got to respect your opponents, and two, it’s just a weird setup. We understand the rules, but if I was another team, I’d be upset as well if we were doing the Hack-a-Drummond in the middle of the fourth quarter, but our coaching staff made the decisions, and we stick with it.”
And more significantly, it felt disrespectful.
“I get the point differential, but it just feels weird. Kind of like you’re disrespecting the game and your opponent,” said Jrue Holiday. “I mean, obviously, they’ll do what they want. They didn’t have their starters in. It just feels weird, but I also understand it.”
Both Brown and Holiday underlined that their disdain for the decisions isn’t aimed at the Celtics coaching staff but at the rules themselves.
The league is trying something new with the In-Season Tournament, and up to this point, it’s seemingly been a success. It’s the middle of November, and fans are getting amped up for a near-30-point blowout while simultaneously tuning in to check the scores of other games.
However, the case of point differential has caused some clear issues, and the league needs to balance their understandable chase for engagement with respect for the game.
“The agenda has been to try to increase competition, to increase revenue, to kind of make it, I guess, more exciting during this time of year…
“But [there’s] a line between increasing excitement, revenue, notoriety, whatever, and compromising the ethics and of the game. It’s a balance, and this is kind of the first that we’ve kind of seen this, but I’m sure there will be a lot of conversations going around that will get to some decisions.”