DALLAS — After a disappointing loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, interim head coach Joe Mazzulla delivered a message to his players, not including Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — which was the kind of encouragement that Marcus Smart and the Celtics needed ahead of facing the hottest team in the NBA.
Luka Doncic and the Mavericks entered Thursday’s matchup at the American Airlines Arena on a seven-game winning streak. Still, they fell behind early against the Celtics as Boston built its first double-digit lead before the end of the opening frame. After Brown picked up two fouls defending Doncic, Smart, along with other role players such as Derrick White (10 points, two blocks), Malcolm Brogdon (15 points, four assists), and Grant Williams (12 points, four rebounds), picked up the slack for the Celtics, as they built a twenty-point lead at halftime (64-46) before Tatum and Jaylen led the way to a 125-94 blowout win.
For Smart, Mazzulla’s talk beforehand went a long way in preparing for Thursday’s matchup.
“His message was really simple: those two (Tatum, Brown) have been doing great, I’ve been on them constantly nonstop about making sure they play the right way, and it’s your guy’s job as role players to help them get better because they’re making the right plays and we have to be ready to knock the shot down, take what the defense gives you, and play with some passion,” Smart said Thursday night. “That’s really what it is, I think that right there was able to give us confidence.”
Marcus believes it’s Mazzulla’s calm approach that’s helped reach Celtics players and inspire them to put forth a better effort in the wake of a 150-117 drubbing by the hands of a mediocre Thunder team that beat Boston without its best player in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
“He could have easily came in and went the other way against us,” Smart added. “But he just wants us to play hard and when you got a coach like that you want to go out there and do it.”
Smart, who was ejected from the Celtics’ loss against the Thunder and received a $35,000 fine Thursday afternoon, also got his own talking-to from Mazzulla.
“He called me out today and actually told me when I’m locked in and playing like that, it makes this team better, and he’s right,” Smart said after Thursday’s win. “I have to play with more energy and more passion and get back to playing the way that I play basketball—and not really focusing on the things I can’t control. I’ve been doing really good at that. It slipped up Tuesday night, but to be able to come back and respond, I’m just happy we got the win today.”
Tatum notched his second-career triple-double (29 points, 14 rebounds, ten assists), Brown scored 19 points, while Smart (15 points, five rebounds) finished with a team-best plus-25 rating along with Grant Williams (12 points). Doncic led the Mavs with 23 points, but he took just as many attempts (7-for-23) to get there, including shooting 0-for-6 from deep. The Celtics’ defense forced Luka to take contested layups, make bad passes, and have four turnovers. Dallas shot at a 37.8% clip, making only seven out of 32 of its 3-point attempts.
Meanwhile, the Celtics’ bench combined for 43 points while Boston shot nearly 50% from the floor (48.8%). Marcus appreciated Mazzulla’s words ahead of Thursday’s showdown against the Mavs. It lit a fire under the league’s defensive player of the year and speaks to how far Joe’s progressed in his role as interim head coach.
“I’m glad he did; that’s the relationship me and Joe have,” Smart said. “We’re always going to be real with each other. He’s going to tell me when I’m wrong, he’s going to tell me when I’m right, vice versa — just learn from each other and just really encouraging each other. It’s not easy for him as well, he stepped into a role a little earlier than he expected, and he has to really navigate this team.”
The Celtics, 27-12, with the best record in the NBA, will look to close out their four-game road trip with a win against the Spurs in San Antonio, as the interim head coach is seeking consistency from his team, hoping this type of focus will carry over into its upcoming games.
“I knew we were going to (respond),” Mazzulla said after the win. “Because I knew it, it’s a matter of can we do it over and over, and over again. Our guys have a level of maturity about them. It doesn’t mean that they’re not going to have bad games or stinkers but we have a level of maturity, and our guys really want to win. So, I trust that in them. So, I knew we were going to do it tonight, and I’m going to work to make sure that we try over and over again to do that.”