BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla gathered the Celtics at their film session back in Boston on Monday and admitted something he’d soon do publicly after the team’s Game 4 loss. He should’ve called timeout.
“That’s his call. He’s the coach,” Malcolm Brogdon said at shootaround on Tuesday. “It’s his call whether or not he feels like we should be able to get it done and play in the rhythm of the game, finish the game without a timeout, or call a timeout. He let us finish the game, he trusts us, at the end of the day, Joe trusts us. He has the confidence in us to make the right play at the end of the game. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. There’ll always be fingers pointed for whoever, but that’s an in the moment call. We trust Joe ... it’s one mistake, it’s one game, but one mistake never costs us. It’s the entirety of the game.”
That one moment, wasting 20 seconds getting into the final set of overtime then not getting a shot off, weighed as heavily as the 16-point deficit the Celtics dug themselves in the first half and key baskets allowed late to James Harden — including the decisive double team. Mazzulla initially defended his decision to call timeout post-game, and later lauded his team’s 1.35 points per shot in the game’s closing stretch.
Clutch time generally continues to haunt a Boston team this postseason that generally played well late in games during the regular season. The Celtics lost 4-of-7 so far in those situations, posting a -9.5 net rating that ranks 11th out of 16 playoff teams, including a 142.9 defensive rating. In this series, James Harden continues to pick on mismatches while higher, earlier screens, Jaylen Brown said, made it a struggle to fight over them as he did to lead successful defensive efforts in Games 2 and 3.
Offensively, timely issues hurt more than the aggregate. Mazzulla admitted his play-calling slowed the Celtics down after they squandered late leads in Game 5 against the Hawks and Game 1 against the 76ers. Offensive organization dwindled in the closing moments of Game 4, Brogdon said. He mostly spent overtime on the bench after picking up a fifth foul.
“I think we just tried to get the right spacing at first,” White said. “We had three guys up top for a second, so that kind of delayed us for a little bit. We’re trying to get the right spacing and attack from there, not necessarily (run the clock out). We were down one, it’s not like it was a tie game or anything. All that stuff we talked about and we’ve just gotta be better about it going forward.”
Three issues plague the Celtics late in games — that pace, difficult lineup decisions and teams successfully taking the ball away from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Boston ranks 15th out of 16 playoff teams, running at a pace of 80 possessions per game to match a slow-motion Philadelphia team’s preferred style. As Joel Embiid fell to a 1-for-6 finish on Sunday, the Celtics should’ve ran him off the floor. Instead, they walked into the half court and waited fewer than 10 seconds remained in the shot clock to take their final seven shots.
Those shots fell and largely did through the first 10 playoff games. The Celtics shot 58.9% late in the shot clock and 45.9% in the final four seconds, which ranked first and second among the playoff teams, respectively. Their shot attempts in the clutch, 6.4 per game, rank 10th though, reflecting their ball control, pace and occasional rebounding issues challenging them in the clutch.
PJ Tucker’s three-point put back tied the game late in regulation, while two dropped defensive rebounds to start overtime gave Embiid a leaner. Embiid’s positioning in front of Al Horford on the offensive glass drew two go-ahead free throws late in overtime before Brogdon’s go-ahead three. Brown attempted 0 shots in the extra frame, recalling comments earlier in the series about being ineffective when stashed in the corner. Tatum said every game is different, and he has passed to Brown 9.5 times per game in the playoffs.
“He also said we were ok in our offense and we were getting great looks and we were executing well,” Mazzulla said. “It’s a duality. I think two things can be true, I think he has to get more looks and when the ball’s in his hands, good things do happen and I think he’s doing a good job of making plays for us ... we just have to make a conscious effort of continuing to execute.”
Lineups always create debates late in games too, Mazzulla starting the fourth quarter with Brogdon, Smart and Derrick White all on the floor, shifting to double big through the middle of the frame then sitting White late. Brogdon went to the bench early in overtime after picking up his fifth foul and allowing 3-for-3 shooting to Harden before the broadcast showed him trying to get back in for the final moments.
Calling no timeout on the final play also cost the Celtics a chance to go offense-defense in the final possessions. For all the discussion about that guard rotation, Smart told CLNS Media/CelticsBlog during the Atlanta series he’s fine with Mazzulla going offense-defense late in games. Mazzulla typically goes to Smart and Brogdon and hasn’t shaken that mix up often aside from foul trouble giving him opportunities to shift back toward White, like Sunday.
Smart’s presence allows Boston to run its Tatum and Smart two-man game that produces effective results. Smart hit two huge shots late in the fourth to force overtime and his final look would’ve won the game if the pass arrived on time from Tatum. Still, crunch time shooting totals over the last two playoffs show how defenses succeed at getting the ball out of Tatum and Brown’s hands and into Smart and Horford’s. Smart is 4-for-18, Horford is 4-for-12, while Brown and Tatum combined for 6-for-17, with nine and eight looks, respectively.
“I guess I gotta demand the ball a little bit more,” Brown said. “I thought good things happened when I had it in my hands, but I thought our offense was ok. I thought we chipped away, we made big time shots, we got good looks all game long. We just came up short in the end.”