LOS ANGELES — Joe Mazzulla and the Celtics saw Saturday’s loss to the Warriors as one of 82 games. Marcus Smart also thought he saw teammates getting down on themselves, and when miscues and poor play from Jayson Tatum festered into Monday’s loss at the Clippers, Mazzulla spoke up. He set the tone for one of the most chaotic games ever between the Lakers and Celtics by telling Tatum to get his s*** together pre-game.
Boston fell out of good habits, stopped moving and racing up the floor, and it stemmed from him. They stopped screening and rolling, the kind of effort and approach Mazzulla expects if the Celtics show nothing else. When Tatum bought in again, Smart and others followed when the Celtics played their way out of it again on Tuesday, blowing a 20-point lead, but rallying to score a 122-118 overtime win after blowing a 20-point lead and going behind by 13 with 3:40 to play.
Mazzulla said nothing. He already sent his message and avoided calling timeouts while the team set itself straight. Tatum scored 44 points and poured in the game-tying shot with 17.8 seconds left. Smart, struggling and taking a moment late to throw up in the tunnel before checking back in during overtime, gave Boston a chance with a steal after Grant Williams hit a three.
“I didn’t even realize (we were down) that much,” Williams said. “We realized we had to hone in. We could go the other way and allow it to end the road trip on a bad note, or we can build a sandcastle.”
Smart allowed the Celtics to score five points in two seconds following a six-minute scoreless drought between the third and fourth quarters, pulling within 106-98. Malcolm Brogdon, Jaylen Brown, Blake Griffin and Smart squandered 13 possessions in a row, to the point where Mazzulla saw throwing passes to the right team as an accomplishment. The Celtics self-corrected to halt the 18-0 Lakers run by letting Tatum control the ball.
Smart screened Westbrook out of Tatum’s path in the lane while Grant spaced Davis to get him rolling with 32 points. Tatum took his own steal back for a three-point play and one of his nine rebounds to the three-point line, where he swung to Grant for a three.
After Smart pulled the Celtics closer and Russell Westbrook launched a mid-range miss, Tatum fed Grant, who threw the ball back to Tatum in the post for a one-handed slam try over LeBron James. Tatum hit a pull-up three, which Anthony Davis answered, before Smart attacked Austin Reaves as three Lakers defenders trailed expecting a touch for Tatum.
“I was rushing a lot, my shots, passes, drives, just calm down,” Smart told CLNS Media. “My teammates kept continuously talking to me, Joe, continuously talking to me and just kind of, like I said, calm down, ease it and let the game come to me. Take the shots that they give you, we don’t care if you miss it, just take it, you know what I’m saying, and I hit some crucial shots for us and that’s kind of how it is. That’s everything. We’re human, we’re gonna go through that. Jayson and Jaylen went through a little spell as well and we just constantly continue to tell each other, ‘keep going, keep going, no matter what.'”
James dared Smart to do just that as he ghost-screened Davis and flared to the left wing. The Lakers stars didn’t react, so Brown fired to his left and Smart landed a three. Davis went to the free throw line to ice the game with 28 seconds left in the other direction and missed both, allowing Tatum to flush a fadeaway over LeBron to tie the game. Smart hit another floater to start overtime, while Mazzulla delivered his wrinkle by forcing Westbrook to shoot over Luke Kornet. Westbrook took five of the Lakers’ first six attempts in overtime and missed three.
Smart tore around a Kornet screen that leveled Reaves as Davis dropped away from Grant, who caught a drive-and-kick pass and hit at three that gave Boston the lead for good. Smart finished with 18 points and six assists on 5-for-11 three-point shooting, but he had to escape a 1-for-6 hole after hitting only 5-of-18 from the field in losses to the Warriors and Clippers. He traveled and missed a three early in the fourth after committing four fouls defending Davis in the post.
Mazzulla had the chance to go away from Smart, as he did in a win earlier this season over Chicago. Like on Monday, when Mazzulla played his rotation into the fourth, he wanted Smart and the team to figure it out.
“As a player, you get in a slump and then you get taken out, that puts you in even more of a slump, because it’s like, dang, you don’t trust me anymore,” Smart said. “So for Joe to be able to let us figure it out, it allows us to get confidence back. It allows guys to get back in a rhythm and it allows us to show us what type of team we are.”
Part of figuring it out is communicating, Smart sending Brown around a screen after passing to Tatum in the high post to begin the third. Tatum reminding Griffin to shoot after passing up an open look in the corner.
Some of it stems from making reads and feeling the game out, getting the best player the ball and letting them work. Sometimes running a play the Celtics know they’d receive in a timeout anyway composes the group. They need to try and fail some actions sometimes before finding what works, Williams said. Mazzulla tells the team regularly that he’s not going to save them.
Players like Smart become more important as the team rides the waves of their shooting. Cold nights against Golden State and LA left the team without an outlet. Boston shot 4-for-12 from deep in the third and turned the ball over six times, not hitting a single basket at the rim. Tatum delivered one four minutes later and Smart drives provided a secondary threat as the team’s waning center depth made them more reliant on the jump shot.
Stagnant offense nearly delivered a blow the team would’ve flown across the country with, until Smart and Tatum shook the Celtics out of it just as their body language took a turn for the worst. Some breaks proved necessary. Boston took advantage as the Boston Sucks chants started falling from the crypto stands.
“Every game is a different storyline,” Brown said. “Like tonight was J.T.’s night offensively, we played through him, let him continue to make those reads and when he has it going, that’s something we’ve got to be able to recognize. Other nights, it might be somewhere else to battle on the boards, knowing that we’re small at times with A.D. down there, somebody got to get in there and get their hands dirty, and knowing we’ve got to pick up the pressure and knowing where we can help defensively. Everybody seemed to know what their role was and do their part, even through the adversity, through some of the struggles, we seemed to figure it out tonight.”T