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Coaching corner: The art of the pep talk

If Coach Mazzulla had 30 seconds to check in with each player in the core rotation and refocus them on what matters most, what should he say?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Coaching, like teaching, is more art than science.

There is, of course, science involved. In coaching, that science consists of technique, scheme, execution of X’s and O’s, and analysis and application of analytics. In lower levels of basketball than the NBA, there may be some coaches that are under-qualified to teach the science of the game. However, as much as fans might like to play armchair coach from the comfort of their living room, you would be hard pressed to convince me that even the “worst” coaching staff in the NBA does not have a PHD-level understanding of the science of basketball. There is simply too much money, too many coaches, and too much experience involved in assembling an NBA coaching staff for them not to know what they are doing.

This is not to say that NBA coaches should be immune from criticism or that they do everything right. They are human and make mistakes or poor decisions just like the rest of us. However, if I had to venture a guess, I would say that 95% of coaching the science of basketball at an NBA level is roughly the same in quality from team to team. Gregg Popovich, for instance, did not suddenly forget how to coach basketball following 22 straight winning seasons. Nevertheless, his teams have compiled a record of 115-174 since the beginning of the 2019 season. I’m sure that he continues to provide the highest level of technical advice to his team. He just happens to be coaching a roster of youngsters without the benefit of multiple Hall of Fame talents.

Since it is my belief that there is not much qualitative difference between how most NBA coaching staffs are teaching and employing the science of the game, the art of coaching is what likely separates those coaching staffs that maximize the talent of their roster from those that do not.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The art of coaching comes down to relationships and communication. It is one thing to know what you want your players to do out on the floor. It is a whole other thing to get them to do it consistently and effectively. The work of nurturing a productive coach-player relationship is never done. It is an organic, ever-shifting entity that needs constant care, attention, and pruning, like tending to a Bonsai tree.

So much of the art of coaching is knowing what to say to a player, when to say it, and how to say it. Whether you want to call these coaching check-ins a pep talk or just part of an on-going symbiotic relationship, they don’t have to be long to be impactful. They just have to resonate with the player and effect positive change.

As the Celtics navigate the end of the regular season and prepare for the impending playoffs, they have hit a stretch of worrying inconsistency. It is not that they are playing poorly all the time. It is that they swing so wildly between playing great, focused team ball one moment and then playing with a lack of interest, toughness, and connectivity the next. What might Coach Mazzulla briefly say to each player on the roster to refocus them on what they need to do to help their team play with more consistency of effort and focus?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Smart: We need to get you back to playing every game with that dawg mentality. Last year at this time, you were hunting the recognition of Defensive Player of the Year. You attacked games from the tip and set the tone for us as a team that we were going to strangle opponents with our toughness and physicality on the defensive end. You are still our emotional heartbeat on the defensive end and the barometer of our team toughness, but there are too many games right now when you are being reactive instead of proactive. Don’t wait to assert your will on the game for after the other team makes a run or for an individual matchup or a bad call to piss you off. Impose your will at all times and force your teammates to match your energy and effort. Your energy and toughness are what makes you special. Be special.

Jaylen Brown: We go from good to great defensively when you and Jayson use your length to be menaces on the wing. Forget about offense. We all know you can and will score. Be a beast on defense. You’re the most physical 2-guard in the league. Make people feel your physicality. Hunt deflections. Get us out in transition. Let’s create some offense from defense. You and Smart make us go emotionally. Lead us. Let’s play with passion all the time. Swagger all the time. Toughness all the time. Last year, you announced to the world that the energy had shifted. This year, shift the energy with your actions and leadership on the court.

Toronto Raptors V Boston Celtics - NBA Game Of Season 2022-2023 At Scotiabank Arena Photo by Anatoliy Cherkasov/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Jayson Tatum: Take some pressure off yourself and go compete without thinking for a bit. You don’t have to be perfect all the time or make the perfect decision. You have great teammates. Let them help you and us be great too. When you were at your best earlier this year, you were impacting the game off the ball more than I have ever seen you do in your career. You were screening more, cutting harder, running more in transition, and it was opening up your whole game. Recently, we are reverting to bad habits where we rely on you to create too many shots for us in the half court. Smart, White, Brogdon, Brown, and Horford can all create offense via the shot, pass, or dribble as well. This is the best and deepest roster you’ve had as a star-level player. Trust your teammates and release some control to them, and we will all reap the rewards.

Al Horford: We need your vocal leadership, and we need it consistently. As much experience as we have gained over the last few years, we are still an emotionally immature team at times. Don’t allow it. Help me create a championship-ready culture. Everyone on the team respects you and values you. Hold your teammates accountable when they are losing focus or not respecting the game or their opponents properly. You know as well as I do that you are closer to the end of your career than the start. We need that perspective - that sense of desperation and urgency. Everything matters if we want to reach our ultimate goal. We have to maintain that hunger for the process and not look ahead at the result.

Golden State Warriors (118) Vs. Boston Celtics (121) At TD Garden (OT) Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Rob Williams: Be greedy to impact the game and don’t set limits on yourself. You are a special player that raises the ceiling of our whole team when you play the way you are capable of. Even though we don’t run plays for you, we expect you to make plays happen on both ends of the floor. You can change a game with blocks, deflections, steals, offensive rebounds, and hustle plays. But that’s not all you can do. You can pass, you can screen, you have good touch inside, and you have contagious energy. Don’t be a passenger on this team. Be confident and make your mark on every game and every matchup.

Malcolm Brogdon: You have done an awesome job of fitting in to a strong roster this year. Now, it’s time for both you and us to hit the accelerator a bit. We went and got you for a reason. We didn’t have enough playmaking depth on our team last year. We need your shooting and scoring, yes, but we also need your ability to break down the defense, get paint touches, and create for others as well. When you get into the game with fresh legs off the bench, bring that mindset to dominate your matchup. It doesn’t always have to be scoring, but you should create an advantage for us almost every time you touch the ball.

Derrick White: You are having a great year and doing so many things that we need to be successful. Your confidence and aggression is night and day from when you first showed up last year and were still feeling your way out on the court. One thing I need from you is to continue to help us push the pace offensively. Change the tempo of the game when you are in there and get us moving and taking advantage of transition opportunities rather than playing in the half court.

Grant Williams: Simplify. Simplify. Simplify. Play to your strengths and be confident. What are you best at? Defense and catch-and-shoot three point shooting. Do those things. Do them every night. Do them without hesitation. Shoot open threes. Ask yourself if I have ever taken you out of the game for shooting a good three? Now, understand that I am going to start subbing you when you pump-fake open catch-and-shoot looks. You’re making the game harder than it is right now. Make the right basketball play and play to your strengths and your role. It will be good for you and good for us.

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