BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla walked into the Celtics’ locker room at halftime, showed clips of 10 transition points of the eventual 36 that Boston allowed that stemmed from effort. He cracked a few inappropriate jokes into the third quarter, and walked out of the fourth with a win.
“He definitely tries to put his personality in there,” Jaylen Brown said. “Some days he has better luck than today I would say … we were losing at the time. I didn’t find it funny, but I understand that’s Joe.”
The Celtics tied the game six minuets later after trailing by seven, and closed the third on a 24-9 run nearly capped by a Payton Pritchard heave that sent the Garden into delirium. Boston nearly squandered a late 14-point lead in the final two minutes, but held on, 133-129, over a short-handed Wizards team that entered with nine wins. Overshadowed by the Pistons and Spurs’ streaks, Washington has played every bit as poorly this year.
Yet a barrage of shot-making (20-47, 42.6% 3PT) reached historic levels as the Wizards rode Boston misses, turnovers and apathy into a 12-for-17 night on the run. Mazzulla acknowledged a poor performance, highlighted by allowing 71 first half points before 42 in the fourth. He remained up-beat, and defended another game filled with slip-ups as an opportunity to practice scenarios, prepare to not expect games to go certain ways and said they’ve mostly resulted in wins once Boston works itself out of trouble. It’s less clear what habits have developed.
“I don’t think they are habits,” Mazzulla said. “I think there are bad stretches. There have been moments of slippage throughout games, which are obviously going to happen throughout. But I think what I care more about is our approach to those slippages. I don’t think you’re gonna negate those. I don’t think you’re gonna eliminate those. It’s just not gonna happen, but the response to those is important, and making sure they don’t slip for multiple quarters, multiple games. That’s more important … when people’s expectations aren’t met, that’s when there is more slippage, because it’s like, wait a minute, this didn’t go how I thought it was gonna go … this team’s good. This Wizards are a good team … they’ve lost games, but they’ve lost a lot of close games.”
Midseason malaise afflicts many teams. Even the vaunted 2008 Celtics went 4-4 in early January, losing back-to-back games to the Wizards and another to the 30-52 Bobcats. The wakeup call for Boston came when the Lakers walked into the Garden without LeBron James and Anthony Davis to wipe the Celtics off the floor last week. The perspective, silver linings and explanations Mazzulla offered for the near let-down on Friday matched others given already this season. Boston doesn’t need to panic about a poor stretch. It does need to find the root of it.
Each game has a different answer. Mazzulla thought the Celtics’ inexperience with trailing in games led to pressing against LA. An inability to find Kristaps Porzingis came as a correction to the Nuggets game, with his zero shots late in that loss leading to the most concerted effort of the season to find him in recent weeks. Against a Wizards front line lacking a center after the Daniel Gafford trade, Porzingis scored 34 points in 33 minutes, drawing 10 free throws and shooting 9-for-18 from the field. Difficulty attacking switching led to the offensive collapse against the Clippers, but Porzingis didn’t play. The Pelicans, Pacers and Hawks quickly erased big leads in their losses, and when the Lakers won, Brown stressed that the Celtics can’t form bad habits. Jayson Tatum pointed toward Boston needing to adjust when the Clippers went on a 21-0 run to trounce the Celtics.
“Tough day for us,” Porzingis said after Friday’s game. “Of course, coming into the game, everybody expected us to run through everybody, especially against a Washington team that their record is not that good, but to be honest, they play hard, fast, got out in transition and you have to give some credit to them for being up at halftime. Second half, we did do a better job of getting back, doing what they were supposed to do … I don’t think we need to overreact now because we aren’t beating everybody by 30 like we were at the beginning of the season.”
The Celtics rank eighth in offense, fifth in defense, with the second-fewest turnovers and an average rebounding rate over the last month. Their shooting fell to 16th, a culprit again on Friday when Boston slipped from its 9-for-12 start in the paint to a 7-for-13 flurry of misses around the rim in the second quarter that led to easy Washington run-outs. Mazzulla also indicated that, like against Atlanta two nights earlier, players who the Celtics didn’t expect to rain threes did, including Bilal Coulibaly and Deni Avdija, combined to make seven threes.
Opponents have shot 32.4% against Boston since Jan. 9, the lowest mark in the league, though they’ve generated the sixth-most attempts in the league trying to keep up with the Celtics’ long-range attack. That led to early advantages by the Hawks and Wizards this week due to volume. Boston built the upper-hand by the end of the night on Tuesday. On Thursday, they appeared fortunate to escape, able to throw the ball to their big man and score at will to bail out a bad defensive effort.
“We can play better, for sure we can play better and I think all of us individually, we have to look at the things that we can do better,” Porzingis said. “But overall, there are gonna be different nights and variations of the games, some teams are gonna shoot crazy like the Lakers game and you’re gonna lose some of the games even if you’re the better team on paper. Of course, we don’t want to have bad habits, but I think we’re nowhere near there and I think the coaching staff is doing a great job.”