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Celtics players grabbed the wheel from Joe Mazzulla with season on the line

Between a starting lineup change and conversations in huddles, the Celtics’ players assumed responsibility from Joe Mazzulla, while holding him accountable with the season on the line.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — Joe Mazzulla told Robert Williams III on Wednesday night he would start for the first time since March 3 next to Al Horford. He delivered the news the matchup needed — and that his players wanted to hear.

“I’ll tell you what,” Horford said. “I’m glad that Joe made that adjustment and we did it, because what a difference. It didn’t surprise me, I was happy that it happened, but we just know the impact that Rob has on the court. When Rob’s not in there, I feel like a lot falls on my shoulders, and when he’s out there, I know that he’s got my back and I can be a little more aggressive.”

Mazzulla previously shied away from last year’s starting unit due to injuries, uneven results and a desire to play a five-out offense, with execution on that end becoming the team’s identity. Yet when scoring struggles nearly led to Boston’s elimination in Game 6, defense saved it.

An overdue adjustment worked. James Harden threw away his first pass to P.J. Tucker, uncovered by Williams III. The 76ers shot 1-for-9 early, turned it over again when the shot clock expired, before Tyrese Maxey shot Philadelphia back within one possession.

Mazzulla called timeout and Smart walked into the huddle to light up his teammates. In a chaotic, tense and high-stakes environment that held everyone in the building on the edge of their seat, the Celtics took communication into their own hands.

They needed to clean up the offense, defend in a variety of lineups and coverages, hold off a furious Philadelphia comeback while uplifting Jayson Tatum from a nearly unprecedentedly poor start by a star.

“(My teammates) were extremely vocal throughout the game,” Tatum said. “Encouraging … that s*** was frustrating. You want to win so bad. You want to play so well and shot’s not falling. Things not necessarily going your way and you want it so bad. Trying to stay present. Trying to stay in the moment. Try and do other things. Every timeout, every huddle, my teammates are telling me, ‘the next one’s going in. Keep rebounding. Keep getting assists. Keep getting blocks … just believing the next one’s going in.’”

Tatum did all that on the way to a 95-86 win that saved the season and bided this core’s time together. Mazzulla — under fire as the series tilted against the Celtics — ceded some leadership to the players in a scene as disconnected, yet as passionate as possible through that approach. In Game 7, they’ll need to wield both structure and that urgency.

The return to the double big lineup allowed Boston to rediscover its identity from last season. Williams III roamed away from Tucker, who finished with eight points on 3-for-8 shooting, daring him to shoot while Williams III parked in the lane. Horford could play higher and more aggressively against the Harden and Joel Embiid pick-and-roll. Perimeter defenders like Smart grabbed steals.

Boston’s players desired a more defensive focus entering the postseason. Once they aligned toward that shift, Mazzulla gave them the keys.

“This team, I think, in the past has always won with its defense,” Brogdon said. “At the end of the season, this year, it’s going to win with its defense and I think that’s what we saw tonight.”

“Joe can only make so many adjustments, he can only say so much, but it’s only the guys in that huddle, sitting on that bench and on that floor that are gonna make the difference. We’ve gotta stay together and tonight I thought we were very vocal with each other and we did stay together.”

It’s unclear what exactly led to the change. Mazzulla called it a way to give the Celtics a different look and uplifting presence, and clarified on Saturday to CLNS Media/CelticsBlog that players didn’t directly ask for it. Tatum previously spoke about how much fun offense becomes while playing with Williams III.

The team emphasized the importance of involving him after his breakout Game 3 against the Hawks. He played less often since, and produced inconsistently off the bench.

Mazzulla’s unwillingness to shake up the rotations, defensive game plans and a key mistake — not calling timeout at the end of Game 4 — drew criticism players acknowledged after Thursday’s win. Several players spoke in support of the shift to Williams III, who provided an outlet for the offense and dramatically changed the complexion of the defense. Philadelphia previously forced switches, shot mid-rangers over Mazzulla’s drop defense and scored one-on-one.

“To be able to have Rob in there, he changes the game a lot,” Smart said. “Being able to have a lob threat, a rim threat, to be able to protect the rim on the other end, he’s huge for us. I was proud to have him on the court. That just goes to show Joe’s learning, just like all of us. I know he’s been killed a lot — rightfully so — he needs to make some adjustments and he’s done that. That’s all you can ask for, continue to be the best he can be and it takes everybody. It’s a full team effort.”

Those calls grew in recent weeks as Brown asked for more time on the ball and said some schematic points didn’t work. Brogdon decried double teams on Harden and the need for a defensive emphasis became apparent. Brown, Horford, Tatum and Smart all discussed returning to defense entering the playoffs. Mazzulla continued to turn attention back to setting the offensive table.

That leadership by committee proved the most surprising aspect of Thursday’s win. Mazzulla delivered his message of love to Tatum while teammates encouraged him. Brown told Tatum to stop playing apprehensive, attack the mismatches in front of him and believe. Horford, Smart and Brogdon continued to generate shots for him. They scrambled together.

“When we do wrong on the court, it’s Joe’s job to let us know, and he does a great job holding us accountable,” Smart said, clarifying the "rightfully so" comment on Saturday.

“There’s things that we don’t see on the court that Joe sees, but there’s also things we see that Joe doesn’t see, and we’re here to help each other ... letting (Mazzulla) know, we want to do this more, allow us to do this, we feel comfortable with this, and him taking the time to say, ‘ok, I hear you guys, let’s do it, or I hear you guys, I took that into consideration, we talked about it, it didn’t work,’ but having that open dialogue.”

Rightfully so in the matter of fact where, just like us, when we go out there and we don’t play a good game, or we don’t do things we know we’re capable of or should be doing, we get held accountable,” Smart continued. “Joe’s not on the court, so he gets held accountable differently than we do and that’s with things he might do or might not do. That’s his decision, if it works, we don’t say nothing, and if it doesn’t, then obviously you have to look at it. That’s the point of taking the criticism ... being able to learn.”

The players will need to address their mistakes, too. Turnovers flowed from the team’s on-court aggressiveness, 18 of them, and Boston missed layups that sent the Sixers in transition.

The lineup change gave them something to rally around. Teammates covered for each other, literally with Williams III’s defensive help, and figuratively for their head coach.

“Joe can only do so much for us on the court,” Smart said. “We’re the only ones playing and at some point, we have to go out there and we have to figure it out. For us, Joe has allowed us to figure some things out, which has helped us. It’s definitely put us in some fire that we have to put out on our own and figure it out. When you got a team like that, when you’re learning constantly and you’re working on continuing to get better, those moments help you down the road.”

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