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Three important coaching decisions for Joe Mazzulla and the Celtics in Round 2

Some important coaching decisions for first-year coach Joe Mazzulla to make, and what I would do if I were in his shoes.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics V Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Joe Mazzulla’s coaching has, and will continue to be, a point of focus for potential scrutiny during the NBA Playoffs. The first-year 34-year-old coach is the youngest coach in the NBA and made some questionable decisions in Round 1 against Atlanta.

The first was Grant Williams’ usage (or lack thereof). I mean, I understand the initial thought process behind trying to avoid Grant having to defend quick, shifty perimeter players like Dejounte Murray and Trae Young. But, when he comes in for 18 minutes in Game 3, goes 4-4 from three, and doesn’t look like a defensive liability, something should probably change – was there ANYTHING he could have done in those 18 minutes to warrant playing time?Furthermore, Grant’s toughness, aggression, and discipline would have been useful on the boards, especially on the defensive end. The Celtics struggled – with both double big lineups and with small lineups – to rebound the ball with Clint Capela and others crashing the glass. Grant deserved a chance to see if he could rise to the level of physicality, which I think we all know the answer to.

Smaller point here, but I was also a bit perplexed by some of the threes the Celtics gave up to Atlanta’s shooters. During stretches of the series, Boston was purposely slow to close out to certain shooters (John Collins, DeAndre Hunter, etc.), which allowed the Hawks to get into a solid offensive rhythm and create good looks from the outside. Hawks players were being dared to shoot – it was clearly a cornerstone of the game plan, and I don’t personally think it went well.

Anyway, onto the Sixers series, which presents a whole new array of basketball decisions to be made. Let’s dive into three of the most important choices Joe Mazzulla will have to make in Round 2.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Who is the 8th man?

The first seven players in the Celtics rotation are all but set in stone. The starters, Malcolm Brogdon, and Rob Williams are all going to play in any playoff series against any team. None of them have enough glaring weaknesses to justify sitting them due to a certain matchup. The question lies in who the 8th man will be against the Sixers.

Against the Hawks, Sam Hauser won the bulk of the remaining rotational minutes for reasons discussed in a previous article. Against Philadelphia, Grant Williams, Payton Pritchard, and Hauser will all have the potential to garner the role, but only Joe knows who will get the first crack (and potentially only crack) at it. All three players can space the floor offensively, and that’ll be their main role on that end no matter which one is chosen, so there isn’t too much to dive into there. Defensively, though, they all bring different things to the table. Whichever player is chosen here will likely be attacked by James Harden, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Maxey, so it’s important to consider how they’ll fare in isolation situations against those particular players.

Grant is probably the best guy to defend both Embiid and Harden — well, definitely Embiid, and likely Harden, too. Williams’ strength and length allow him to switch onto Joel and hold his own, which neither Pritchard nor Hauser can come close to doing. Furthermore, Harden does his fair share of bullying his way to the rim, so I think a stronger and more sturdy defender is best against him.

I also like the idea of going to Grant at the center position and forcing Embiid to fly out to contest 5-out threes from him in the corner, just as a small-ball look. Embiid wants to sag in the paint for as long as he can get away with, and closing out to perimeter shooters is the last thing he wants to do. Most importantly, though, give Williams a chance! I mean, what more does the guy have to do to earn consistent minutes?

2) To double or not to double Joel Embiid?

Note: This assumes Embiid plays and is somewhere close to his normal self, which may or may not be the case.

Brooklyn’s strategy of all-out double-teaming Embiid was quite fascinating. Embiid averaged fewer points and assists, shot fewer free throws, and averaged more turnovers per game in the series as a result. In essence, it looks like the double teams worked. But, Philly still had a 114 offensive rating and was able to get open three point looks for all of their shooters. Oh, and they swept 4-0. To put it really simply, doubling Embiid forces remaining Sixers players to hit threes, whereas guarding him straight up forces Embiid to win the game in MVP fashion. Different coaches have different philosophies, but Mazzulla’s decision here will be a pivotal one in determining what Philly’s mode of offense is and therefore how effective they can be.

However, throwing one coverage at a player for the entire game is just not sustainable. A player of Embiid’s caliber will adjust to seeing the same thing over and over and will figure out ways to attack it as the series goes on. So, it’s on the coach to figure out different coverages to go to at different times.

When Embiid catches the ball at or around the block, he needs to be doubled by the closest defender. He’s too strong for any individual Celtics defender with his back to the basket, especially that close to the hoop. When the closest defender comes, the Celtics must rotate to shooters and leave the worst shooter on the court semi-open (while still closing out – just think the opposite of what we did with John Collins). This player will normally be P.J. Tucker or Jalen McDaniels. I like this strategy because Embiid doesn’t have the passing chops to pick apart a defense out of the double team. He just doesn’t have the vision or creativity to operate like Jokic, Lebron, Luka, or other often-doubled stars.

If Embiid catches the ball at the elbow, I would largely guard Embiid with one player. However – and Brooklyn did this effectively in their series – I would send a player to Embiid’s back the moment he turns his head. Joel wasn’t good at handling that, so why not show him some more of it in Round 2? I would also help at the nail and make sure to dig in on drives. He can’t drive to the rim without having to avoid some hands and bodies.

Pace vs. defensive rebound?

Virtually every decision in basketball comes with consequences and for Joe Mazzulla, the decision between pushing the pace and making sure a defensive rebound is secured will be no different. In the first round, the Sixers had the second best offensive rebound rate in the league, which means they absolutely dominated the offensive glass. That being said, they played at the slowest pace of any team in the league. Why do they hate pushing the ball, you might ask? Because a fast paced game does not favor Embiid and Philly – their transition defense is horrid and they would rather ground and pound.

The problem is that while getting out and punishing the Sixers in transition seems logical and exploitable, that leaves the Celtics vulnerable on the defensive glass (in order to effectively get out on the break, players must leak out and abandon the defensive boards). So, they could instead all pinch in and crash for defensive rebounds, but that means limited transition opportunities and generally a slower start to the offense.

However, making Embiid play at a fast pace and forcing the Sixers into a game they don’t prefer is just too much to pass up on. I think Harden and Embiid are two of the more poorly conditioned “stars” in the NBA, and the best way to exploit that is to run, run, and run some more. But not just run on misses – sprint up the floor, get into early offense, and cut with ferocity and vigor on makes as well. Make all five Philly players play defense every time down the floor, and specifically, don’t give Embiid and Harden possessions off on that end.

Yes, that’ll open up some holes on the defensive glass, but something has to give. Atlanta won the offensive boards battle, but I think an increased emphasis on finding bodies (due to how bad we were at doing that against ATL) and the addition of Grant Williams into meaningful minutes should both have positive effects on the Celtics’ ability to limit Philly to one shot.

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