It’s hard to argue with Joe Mazzulla’s entire resume. After being thrust into a difficult position replacing Ime Udoka before the start of training camp, the youngest head coach in the NBA guided a title contender to the second most efficient offense and defense in the league in the regular season.
But there have been cracks.
After the Celtics went down 3-2 against the 76ers, there were whispers of his self-admitted mismanagement. The team seemingly fumbled away Games 1 and 4 and came out flat at TD Garden for Game 5 and by many accounts, it was the players’ decision, or at least suggestion, to start Robert Williams for the rest of the series. In these latter months, he’s shown a willingness to learn and while that humility won’t exactly earn him the respect of his critics, he’s earned the support and respect of his players.
But now, after Boston was completely demolished in Game 3 in the franchise’s worse playoff loss in team history, Mazzulla put the heat on himself.
“I have to be better. I got to get them in better positions. I gotta get them ready to play,” Mazzulla said. “I have to have the game plan ready for us to be physical and to execute. It’s important that we stick together.”
There have been tactical decisions in this series that now have the Celtics down 0-3 to the Heat. Mazzulla started Derrick White over Robert Williams after giving White the nod after halftime in Game 2. However, Boston has yet to consistently figure out Erik Spoelstra’s schemes of crowding Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with zone defense and/or multiple defenders. Miami always seems to be a step ahead.
“Regardless of their roster, we’re playing against a great team — we’re a great team — and right now, they have the mentality, and we don’t. We have to get that back,” Mazzulla said.
The Heat are feeling themselves for good reason. On the defensive side of the ball, they’ve held Tatum and Brown to a combine 7-of-40 from behind the arc and the All-NBA duo has tallied more turnovers (23) than assists (21).
Offensively, it’s been less about the Jimmy Butler Show (even though he’s been phenomenal) and more about the Heat’s collective three-point shooting: Caleb Martin (10-of-21, 47.6%), Gabe Vincent (10-of-18, 55.6%), and Duncan Robinson (8-of-15, 53.3%).
And so far, the Celtics haven’t had answers and they’re still searching.
“I think some of that defensive identity has been lost and we have to get that back and part of that is on me to get that back,” Mazzulla said after the Heat have now scored 123, 111, and a monster 128 points over the last three games.
“We’re not connected. Usually, at our best, we’re connected. We’re together. We’re physical on the defensive end. We don’t have that right now.”
Back in mid-February, Mazzulla had the interim tag removed from his coaching title. He had won consecutive Coach of the Month awards and been named one of the All-Star Game coaches. In the team’s press release, President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens said, “Joe is a very talented coach and leader. He has a unique ability to galvanize a room around a mission.”
That mission was raising Banner 18 this summer. NBA history and the odds are against them now and we can question some of Mazzulla’s coaching decisions that got the Celtics here, but there’s no doubt he’s been able to create that togetherness and unify their locker room.
“Coach is saying that. He’s being generous,” veteran Al Horford said of Mazzulla taking all the blame for Sunday’s loss. “At the end of the day, that falls on each player. We know what we have to do. We knew the magnitude of this game and as a player, I take responsibility.”
Brown called it a collective embarrassment and refused to point fingers. And in what might have been the most telling soundbite of the evening, you can hear the head coach’s words emanating from the team’s star player.
“We gotta be connected more — five guys all on the same page, competing at the same level, talking, and being in it for one another. Every possession is not perfect. You’re going to get beat. Mistakes happen, but we need to do a better job being there for one another, having each other’s back, and just being a little more connected on defense,” Tatum said.
There are certainly no silver linings in a 26-point loss, especially of the magnitude and importance of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. But regardless of how the rest of the series plays out, there is little doubt that Mazzulla has the ears, attention, and respect of his players and while that may not lead to a championship, it is the makings of one.