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Joe Mazzulla: Firebrand

After a letdown loss in Game 1, Joe Mazzulla rallied the troops in Game 2 with newfound purpose and resolve.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

After an upset loss in Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Boston Celtics brought the intensity on Wednesday night in a 121-87 blowout win at TD Garden. MVP Joel Embiid made his return to the Sixers starting lineup, but it made little difference as the Celtics continued a relentless attack on both sides of the floor. One thing was clear: these guys were mad.

“They were angry, frustrated,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. When asked about the 48 hours leading into the game, Mazzulla said the team was “angry, pissed.” Was coach happy that the team was livid going into a crucial Game 2?

“Yes,” Mazzulla said curtly.

Beyond just taking their frustrations out on the Sixers, Boston played with a relentless pace that served as a reminder of how lethal this team can be when they put in the effort. Wednesday night’s drubbing was the largest loss in 76ers postseason history; it also marked the first time this season that the Celtics held an opponent to under 90 points, something that had become commonplace under former coach Ime Udoka last season.

It wasn’t just the players that were ticked, it was Mazzulla as well. As a rookie head coach, Mazzulla has been challenged in so many ways after taking over in a sticky situation. His methods and thought process about approach have come into question time and time again, especially on offense and the reliance on taking three-pointers. It’s time to admit something when it comes to that: Mazzulla was/is right.

In Game 1, Boston scored a whopping 66 points in the paint, clearly attacking Philly on the interior with the absence of Joel Embiid. But the team notably took less threes, a mere 26 attempts from beyond the arc; that was the second lowest attempts total for Boston over the last two seasons. That stat seems even more wild when considering that Joe Mazzulla’s offense is centered around lots of threes.

“I don’t think 26 threes is a recipe for our success as a team,” Mazzulla said after their Game 1 loss on Monday. Two days later, the Celtics shot an eye-popping 51 attempts from deep, converting on 20 of them (39.2%).

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

There was another particular wrinkle that Mazzulla added to the game plan that stood out: the use of Grant Williams. It seems like a no-brainer on the surface, but after being an integral part of last year’s Finals run, Grant fell out of good graces with the new head coach for reasons unknown. Whether it was too much hero ball or some kind of disconnect while out on the floor, Grant Williams remained glued to the bench until the return of Joel Embiid in Game 2, and like the Kraken, Mazzulla unleashed Grant on Philadelphia to the tune of 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting (all from beyond the arc) along with four rebounds, four assists, and a steal. Grant was a +22 on the night in 29 minutes of floor time, which is the most he’s played in a game this postseason.

It wasn’t even the fact that Grant played and played well, it was how Mazzulla folded the versatile forward into his rotations. A big reason why Philly lit Boston up in Game 1 was due to their speed, since their pace wasn’t catered to or dictated by Joel Embiid on the floor; even before the knee injury, Embiid wasn’t a fast mover. Al Horford was attacked on switch after switch and the pick-and-roll, specifically by James Harden during his throwback performance. But with Embiid back in the mix for the Sixers, they went back to a slower brand of basketball, which better allowed Horford to be effective and matched him up against the lumbering MVP.

But the best part was whenever Embiid was taken out of the game, Al Horford generally was, too. Grant Williams was brought in, and it took away the ability for the 76ers to attack the slower bigman. Grant’s speed and size allowed Boston to remain playing at a fast pace, but without sacrificing so much on defense. After going off for a whopping 45 points in Game 1, James Harden wilted in Game 2, scoring only 12 points on a grisly 2-of-14 from the field (0-of-6 from deep) and hitting 8-of-10 free throws along with 10 rebounds and four assists. Philadelphia’s offense fell to pieces, totaling 13 assists on the night while also racking up 11 turnovers.

For all of the criticism that’s come his way, whether fair or not, Joe Mazzulla has used it as fuel. The quiet, soft-spoken coach on the podium isn’t afraid to get chippy and feisty during media availability, and is clearly keeping an ear to the ground on the critiques and complaints about the team or his coaching methods. Before leaving the podium Wednesday night, Mazzulla quipped, “what, no one wants to ask about the adjustments we made from Game 1 to Game 2?”

If there were any doubts about it, it’s clear now that Mazzulla is paying attention to what’s being said about him as a coach. Make no mistake: Joe coaching with a chip on his shoulder is a good thing, and at the end of the day, you can’t argue with the results.

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