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Celtics Shake Boredom and Slumps with Small Wins Against Pelicans

BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla admitted the Celtics sucked in a first quarter, 36-25, letdown against the Pelicans on Monday. A 3-for-12 second quarter from beyond the arc with three turnovers also rang in at 25 points, but in what’s become a barometer for the Celtics’ head coach in terms of quarter-to-quarter consistency this season, he focused more on the points allowed.

“You thought the second quarter was bad? We only gave up 24,” Mazzulla said when asked by CLNS Media about the first half. “I think that’s the key. The first half is, there’s this sense of entitlement like we’re supposed to play amazing basketball every quarter, every game and that’s just not how it works. I said to the guys at halftime, we gave up 24 points … after giving up 36. This expectation of, it’s supposed to go a certain way all the time, it can be extremely unhealthy. We have to continue to play regardless, down five, up eight … I thought the momentum changed for us in the second quarter when we finally started to defend … we can’t be defined by a result. If we’re only gonna feel good about ourselves when the ball’s going in then that’s a recipe for short term success.”

The Celtics rode a 10-2 run out of halftime, took a lead with a 16-5 answer after falling behind by eight again, then fell behind 11 in the fourth quarter and shot ahead by 11 points on a 33-11 decisive comeback to secure a 118-112 win in what could’ve become another sleepy January game. Instead, it became emblematic and revelatory about Mazzulla’s continued process of maintaining a consistent mindset in Boston’s locker room, focusing on granular details, the margins and how they add up. That’s been especially important in games where the Celtics don’t shoot well for segments and in a month where injuries, some lackluster opponents and letdowns against top teams could create a mix complacency and frustration within a top-seeded team.

Boston entered halftime shooting 24% from three, committing timely turnovers into the half court and watching them turn into Pelicans baskets the other way reminiscent of how the loss to the Clippers got out of hand. Whether that focus on getting back, the offensive rebounds that continue to balance Boston’s offense through its slumps or getting to the free throw line, Mazzulla spoke about those fine details costing the Celtics against LA as much as missed shots — an often available excuse. The presence of those little things saved Boston on Monday.

“It’s a full season, it’s a full body of work you’ve gotta account for, night in and night out,” Jaylen Brown told CLNS post-game. “You’ve got guys that’s not playing. You’ve got guys that are tired, mentally fatigued, all kinds of different stuff going on in people’s lives every night. We try to come out and put our best foot forward. It’s part of my responsibility to make sure our guys are ready to go regardless of the outside things. We don’t really make no excuses, but it’s tough. You’ve gotta come out and be the best version of yourself every single night. That’s what the city demands, but that’s what we demand of ourselves as well. It starts individually … being able to get yourself ready to go. I can, for sure, feel it, but it’s all strength of mind … effort, defensive intensity and playing the right way … if we all bring that to the table, we’ll be able to pick each other up even through those lulls.”

Brown scored 22 points with 11 rebounds and seven assists on 8-of-15 shooting while Jayson Tatum provided 28 on 10-of-18 with 10 rebounds, eight assists, three steals and a block. They managed Brandon Ingram, who shot 6-of-13 with 15 points in the first half before Zion Williamson emerged with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting in the third before pouring on five more points to open the fourth and build New Orleans’ 92-81 lead. A mix of Oshae BrissettAl Horford and Derrick White held him to 1-for-4 shooting with two turnovers for the rest of the game. Opening the door for White to score or assist on 16 of Boston’s next 26 points to turn around up 107-101. Horford, Tatum and Brown slammed the door shut with baskets on the next three possessions.

The win followed a measuring stick defeat at the hands of the Clippers, albeit without Kristaps Porziņģis, that notably saw Tatum stress the Celtics needing to adjust in after, Horford and White combing for 0 field goals along with Jrue Holiday acknowledging offensive letdowns led to defensive lapses. Mazzulla didn’t reveal an overarching sentiment following the defeat, but showed the team second and third read opportunities during an extended shootaround on Monday. He turned the page to the Pelicans, Brown regrouped with some two-on-two work alongside coaches and White returned to the basics mechanically after falling to 38% from the field in January.

“Should we be pissed? Yeah, nobody’s be happy with losing, but if you’re too pissed, it’ll distract you,” Mazzulla said pre-game. “Everybody looks at losing as a distraction, but winning can be a distraction. If you win continually and you feel good about yourself, that can get in the way from having a balance of what you need to get better at as a team. Everything’s a distraction. It’s just a matter of how you handle it. So I don’t care if we’re pissed, happy, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is we come ready to play. I hate losing, but I also can’t let it get in the way of preparation … we don’t lose a lot, the times that we do, we’re a little bit more attentive and that’s where I say winning can be a distraction. The hardest thing to do, I think, is continue to win and not know you have to get better as a team.”

An awareness that Porziņģis would miss another game, that White’s slump continued, that Neemias Queta would receive opportunity all allowed the Celtics to get something out of a January game other than another game in the stands, or averting disaster. Queta contributed an important third quarter bounce pass to Sam Hauser for a cutting dunk and a three-point lead. White’s 5-for-6 finish reminded him of the level he played at in December.

Having gone through similar games already relieved the team that they could overcome an early 17-point deficit. In today’s league that’s nothing. Trailing by 10 points at halftime, Mazzulla challenged an out-of-bounds call and during the timeout, Tatum visibly slammed his towel on the ground and clapped his hands. A closer look revealed that he and Brown, long before the team’s comeback got rolling, were joking around with each other and smiling.

“I hope it happens 10-12 more times,” Mazzulla said. “So we can get rid of the entitlement that we always have to be winning. I hope we have to blow leads, I hope all that happens. I really do … at times, we’re just supposed to be winning all the time and it’s just not the case. We have to stay the course. Sometimes, you could be losing because you’re playing good basketball. The result just isn’t being achieved … we just have to continue to play.”

Bobby Manning

Boston Celtics beat reporter for CLNS Media and host of the Garden Report Celtics Post Game Show. NBA national columnist for Boston Sports Journal. Contributor to SB Nation's CelticsBlog. Host of the Dome Theory Sports and Culture Podcast on CLNS. Syracuse University 2020.

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