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Celtics-Hawks a test for Joe Mazzulla against innovative Quin Snyder

Joe Mazzulla looks across the sideline at a head coach ahead of the curve in Quin Snyder, who spearheaded innovations Mazzulla now emphasizes to the Celtics.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

BOSTON — The Hawks tried to speed up the pace of the second half while the Celtics slowed down in Game 1. Quin Snyder made no secret about his plan to crash the offensive glass, and less than 30 games into his head coaching tenure with the Atlanta Hawks, he stressed something the Boston Celtics embraced long ago as Atlanta fell behind by 30 points in the first half on Saturday.

He pulled Trae Young by his side numerous times, telling him and his teammates to keep shooting. The Hawks launched 46 threes in Game 2. While Young only converted 2-of-8, Snyder smiled.

“When I watched (Boston) over the course of the year, that (three-point volume) jumps out,” Snyder told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog last week. “Looking at the way we tried to evolve in terms of an offensive style ... they’re shooting in a lot of different situations. I think a lot of that is one, recognition of where those attempts can come from and then two, giving yourself permission to shoot and permission to miss them.”

“Certain shots that, historically, people have looked at and said that’s not a good shot, I would never object to someone shooting a layup, particularly if it’s uncontested. Three-point shots aren’t layups, but for today’s NBA players, open threes, you can count on them if not making them, coming pretty close, and they’re still worth three ... which matters.”

Snyder’s team struggled to grasp that message as the Celtics rattled off a 7-for-9 stretch between the first and second quarters that buried the the Hawks, who started 0-for-10 from deep, in Game 1. Boston finished with 33 three-point attempts to Atlanta’s 29, though the Celtics out-shot the Hawks from three 48-33 as a percentage of their field goals during the regular season, the most important stat in basketball according to Joe Mazzulla. The Hawks posted the worst three-point attempt rate in the league.

Snyder found other ways to compete along the margins, doing the little things that’ll determine the Celtics’ playoff outcome, now or later. That manipulation of the game’s margins once inspired Mazzulla and Brad Stevens, and now challenges the Celtics in this series.

Mazzulla monitors those four factors nightly, shooting efficiency, free throws, offensive rebounding and turnovers, which more often than not determine a game. At practice this week, he emphasized grabbing boards with two hands. The other three factors can overcome a poor three-point night — Boston finished near the top of the league in all of those categories to finish 13-19 in their poor shooting nights — so long as the Celtics carefully manage the shot totals.

When Mazzulla looked up at the end of Game 1, Boston won by 13 points, but the Hawks out-shot them 98-88 from the field. The same happened three nights later, Boston gave up 15 more shots, but the Celtics forced enough turnovers and blocked enough shots to take a 22-point lead and win by 13. Those shots fell at a 56% rate in Game 3 and Atlanta finally stole a game.

“I think turnovers (and) they had like 19 offensive rebounds, we’ve gotta do better than that,” Tatum said before that loss. “They got more shots up. Things like that, we’ve gotta do better at going into Game 3 and 4. They probably feel like if they had made more open shots, that the series might look different. Those are things we can control, turnovers and getting more shots up.”

Snyder grinned at the notion he inspired Stevens, who called his 2021 Jazz team the closest thing to the 2014 Spurs he’d seen since. That group’s combination of quick decision-making, three-point volume, finishing fourth all-time in attempted three-points in a season, along with an ability to manipulate any kind of defense and play-make interchangeably, became Stevens’ vision for the Celtics. Snyder noted he looked up to Stevens’ Butler success while taking on his first full-time NBA assistant jobs with the 76ers and Lakers.

Both coaches carved out success, leading the Jazz and Celtics around the same time, and they became good friends, a rarity in the NBA coaching ranks. While Snyder prefers to avoid basketball while interacting with Stevens and others, he absorbs knowledge from everyone around him, something Mazzulla tried to do as both head coach’s careers waned. Stevens stepped into Boston’s front office in 2021. Snyder and Utah separated in 2022.

That set up a meeting between Snyder and Mazzulla at Summer League last year, the latter expecting to take over as associate head coach in July, rather than the lead man on Boston’s bench. Snyder didn’t know his next move yet, happy to oblige yet preferring to focus on something outside of basketball, joking he once took a lob play from a pizza delivery driver.

“I think he’s obviously one of the best coaches in the league,” Mazzulla told CLNS/CelticsBlog. “I think he’s been one of the more innovative coaches in the league over the last decade or so, because of his ability to integrate the international offense, his ability to have an innovative offense and he’s also coached a high-level defense and so I think he’s just a really well-balanced coach that’s a great teacher ... I knew part of my growth was, how can I get better at some of those areas?”

Mazzulla learned to show the Celtics how they win when they tune into those little areas and falter when they don’t. Boston took nearly 200 more threes than Snyder’s 2021 Jazz this year to finish third all-time, led the league in defensive rebounding percentage, cut its turnovers, gave up the fourth-fewest free throw attempts in the league and shot more efficiently (56.6 eFG%) than any team in the east.

Tatum grasping the importance of and embracing those margins by attacking the boards, launching difficult threes and protecting possessions allowed him to have the best season of his career while leading a winning team.

Snyder, who oversaw Donovan Mitchell’s ascent to superstardom with the Jazz, now faces his next challenge of building a program for Young and an Atlanta team that didn’t focus as much on the four factors previously.

They’ve battled and surpassed the Celtics in several of them so far in this series, offensive rebounding (28.9-19%), turnovers (12.4-12.8%) and free throws stand almost even (12.8-12.1 FTA).

“As much as it’s about the playoffs, it comes down to the fundamentals, the basics,” Mazzulla said. “Doing those things at a higher intensity, with a higher level of intensity and focus, which our guys have shown to do. Just trusting in them.”

“(I’ll mention) rebounding more than the four times you just said it in that question.”

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