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Joe Mazzulla looking beyond the numbers at generating momentum for Celtics

For Joe Mazzulla — a numbers guy — the unquantifiable value of momentum has been part of his calculations as he starts his second season as Celtics head coach.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Joe Mazzulla looked down at the stat sheet in front of him knowing the Celtics averted disaster on Opening Night. The Knicks pummeled Boston on the boards, forced 13 turnovers and shot more three-pointers. New York generated a staggering 20 more field goal attempts than the Celtics — who won thanks in large part to twelve Knicks missed free throws.

“It was definitely a flip of the box score,” Mazzulla joked. “We shot less threes, we shot more twos. I’m sure everyone’s happy.”

The Celtics’ adherence to winning those four factors became Mazzulla’s primary focus as head coach last year. This year, he displayed a focus on other areas that allowed Boston to win when the numbers game tilted against the Celtics. He talked about defense throughout training camp, helping lift the team to a No. 7 ranking in defensive rating this month. The post-up entered the picture as a predominant part of the offense. And after a win over the Heat, he brought up the idea of momentum and instinct guiding decision-making.

Oshae Brissett entered that game midway through the first quarter after Mazzulla planned to bring him in at the start of the second. Boston didn’t play Brissett on Opening Night, but with Miami pulling ahead 25-13 through seven minutes, Mazzulla felt the need for a spark. Brissett provided several, tipping Jaylen Brown’s missed free throw out-of-bounds off the Heat, keeping another shot alive for an eventual Sam Hauser three and hammering a cutting dunk on a pass from Jayson Tatum to pull Boston within 28-25.

“I had to learn the hard way when we lost to Brooklyn last year,” Mazzulla said. “I think momentum’s a huge thing, I think there are ways you can manipulate it, I think there are ways you can stop it and it’s just something that comes with instinct and it comes with knowing your team, knowing the situation and knowing the opponent. When you have guys that can make big momentum plays ... (Brissett) changed the game. That, to me, is what momentum is all about. He came in, he made a significant impact and he did his job at a high, high level. We have to get to a point where what he did is just as important as what the other guys did tonight.”

The Nets game Mazzulla mentioned happened eight months ago as the Celtics returned to New York this weekend for a similarly-contested game. Boston blew a 28-point lead at home on Tatum’s 25th birthday in March, and Mazzulla mentioned that night as a coming-of-age experience in his young coaching career. Joe mentioned several times since that he knew they were going to lose when he saw the Celtics shoot ahead on easy layups and the Nets compiling quality three-point attempts that barely missed. Momentum swung in Brooklyn’s direction with a 21-8 run into halftime.

Jaylen Brown and Nic Claxton didn’t remember the game as well. Brown learned the importance of the numbers game that came out of that loss as Mazzulla stressed it throughout last season a component to how teams have won. Claxton saw it as an important step for a fresh roster that had recently traded Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. For Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn, he laid out how Brooklyn would beat Boston before the game. Take away the three with switching and win the three-point and shot battle with pace.

“The analytics speak to you,” Vaughn told CLNS/CelticsBlog on Saturday. “Whether you wanna listen to it or not is up to you. I think it’s a part of our game that you could take advantage of. It’s really taking the data and making it clean where you can present it to a player for those guys to absorb a little bit. It matters in our game, whether it is sending in a guy a different direction, whether it’s shot quality by the individuals on your team, whether you gonna offensive rebound or not offensive rebound...staying away from the weaknesses.”

“You can see that Joe does an amazing job with his group and preaching high quality shots, where those shots are taken from...and then the response after you do take the shot ... we have a few guys who love midrange shots. If we can push some of those mid-range shots to be in threes. We love those or attacks at the rim....the analytic piece of this game is something that you can use to teach players ... it is not going anywhere.”

On Saturday, the Celtics beat the Nets handily despite a relatively poor shooting night, a barrage of Brooklyn attempts from deep in the other direction, a forceful Nets rebounding effort and their relentless pace winning the shot total battle. The Celtics made individual efforts, too. Luke Kornet set quality screens off the bench and scored on the roll. Sam Hauser cut off a Day’Ron Sharpe pass and dunked in transition. Tatum broke down defenders in isolation. Brown hit late, timely shots.

Momentum plays won again for the Celtics, who still closely monitor the stat sheet. Mazzulla spoke before the game about the team’s intention and activity pleasing him when it comes to forcing turnovers, an offseason emphasis that hasn’t produced results yet (10.5 TOV%, 30th). Elsewhere, the Celtics have produced quality shots, kept opponents off the boards and limited their fouling. A mix of many approaches produced their 5-0 start, along with the lasting lessons from last year’s mistakes.

“I just felt it (in March against Brooklyn),” Mazzulla said. “I let my team down from an emotional, momentum perspective to where we didn’t have the tools necessary to stop runs as a team. To stop runs, either offensively or defensively with a quick adjustment. And so I think that really helped us build a mind frame of — how do we handle momentum during games as a team?”

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