Joe Mazzulla Goes Zone and Celtics Answer with Legendary Game 3 Win

INDIANAPOLIS — Pascal Siakam scored through Al Horford. Siakam scored through Payton Pritchard. Siakam scored through Derrick White. When Saturday night ended, Siakam had shot 15-for-24 versus Horford, 7-for-11 over White and even poured in 4-of-8 tries against Jrue Holiday. Yet Holiday’s transition recovery and a potentially timeless steal against Andrew Nembhard highlighted a defensive turnaround and 114-111 comeback that could launch Boston to the championship. After his furious start, Siakam finish 4-for-10.

“Indiana, we thought they were just lights out tonight,” Jaylen Brown said. “Their pace, everything was just tough. The first three quarters, we couldn’t figure it out. They were playing with so much pace and speed and they weren’t missing shots. Those guys were playing amazing … we could say that we didn’t play as well tonight, but I felt like you had to be out there to feel it man. They were flying around, and then they were shooting the ball well. Some of those guys turned into f***ing Michael Jordan or whatever. We were like man, what’s going on?”

The Celtics led early against a Pacers team down Tyrese Haliburton, but that Indiana added Siakam midway through the season and backup guards TJ McConnell and Andrew Nembhard could still get him the ball against Boston’s switches. Siakam started 5-for-8 to give the Pacers a chance with their season on the line, improving to 30-for-48 from the field in the east finals to that point. It also punished the Celtics for an early letdown defensively and for playing small, daring Myles Turner and Siakam to post their smaller players.

Indiana obliged, and led by as many as 18 points midway through the night on transition runs, long possessions filled with extra passes or individual efforts by McConnell and Nembhard. The Pacers held the line with Haliburton off the floor this season (-0.8) and while that didn’t hold true into the playoffs (-6.2), Indiana’s initiators stepped up and took the space the Celtics yielded to them inside the three-point arc, taking 27 of the team’s first 30 field goal attempts from two-point land, starting 5-for-5 at the rim and 13-for-18 from two. The Pacers didn’t make a three until midway through the second quarter, leading by six despite that and a hot start for Jayson Tatum (6-10 FG) — Indiana powered by a 25-for-36 shooting from two in the first half.

Joe Mazzulla smiled after the game, noting that the Celtics found adjustments that he couldn’t reveal. They slowed the Pacers to 38.3% shooting after halftime, but the timely makes kept falling. A McConnell baseline fadeaway put Indiana back up by five after Boston pulled within three with seven minutes left. Nembhard beat Brown off-ball for a reverse layup in traffic, converted a pull-up two and nailed a corner three to reach 30 points and keep the Pacers up by seven. Indiana led by eight with 2:38 remaining, but a hardened defensive effort and the iconic 13-2 run that followed allowed the Celtics to score their signature playoff win.

“We were just trying anything to try to keep them out of the paint. I feel like they were getting whatever they wanted,” Derrick White told CLNS as he sat back exhausted in his locker. “Just trying to throw a different look at them. They were attacking the paint the whole time so we tried to just change … a little different look. I think that started it, then we went back to man and kept it going. Just a different look and trying to slow them down a little bit. It was a little bit of everything. We talked about it throughout the whole season and we used it, obviously, throughout the whole year. Just trying to cause confusion, fly around and make multiple efforts.”

Beyond telling each other to stay with it and Mazzulla urging the team to stop feeling sorry for itself in the third, Boston broke into a zone look that, in part, changed the game. Mazzulla called for it, White told CLNS Media, and it led to some disruptiveness during a 24-21 win in the third. McConnell turned the ball over against it, Siakam missed a shot inside and Turner launched a missed three before Obi Toppin slipped for a dunk. Mazzulla, less impressed, said it led to layups.

The lineup featured White, Holiday, Payton Pritchard, Tatum and Xavier Tillman Sr. at the time. A combination that hadn’t played together all year that arrived out of necessity after small ball failed in the first half. That, Mazzulla did credit his team for. Finding a way to pile up stops by being willing to try anything.

“I wouldn’t say it way very good,” Mazzulla said. “It kept us figuring it out, and that’s the more important thing. Whether it was the zone, whether it was the matchup change, the coverage change, we figured it out. I didn’t think the zone was overly effective, but what it did do, was it just allowed us to stay open-minded and change the dynamic of the game … that’s the most important thing from last night is we just found different ways to figure it out.”

Holiday’s presence remained central to the zone’s success despite him not calling it this time, rotating, communicating and calling plays like a trap at mid court that forced McConnell to dump to Toppin from a high rolling position. That turnover led to a Holiday miss the other way, after which he darted back to stall Siakam at the free throw line and force an errant pass over Toppin and out of bounds. Indiana led, 90-81, but the Celtics finally found a way to slow the game down from that pace that seemed destined to doom Boston early.

The Celtics found a comfort in playing fast through three games too, so their issue came more as a result of difficulties defending pick-and-roll, switching their big men onto the perimeter and bench rotations than an inability to play fast. Boston is the more efficient transition team in the series so far while occasionally struggling to generate those opportunities through stops.

Then, Boston blocked eight shots in the third, including three in the final 1:18 and six in the final 4:49, finishing with 12 before the stops came in droves to begin the fourth. The Celtics went back in a more traditional defensive look and stopping Siakam inside, Nembhard in-between and Turner from deep.

“They did a lot of things offensively that, I don’t want to say caught us off guard, but we had to change up some things and be ready for that,” Brissett said. “Throwing out the zone, going small ball … we did a great job of weathering that storm throughout the whole game … throwing out a zone there, it’s kind of for a different look … it’s just something we had to throw out then because of the way they were scoring.”

Indiana threw one more punch, scoring on 7-of-8 possessions as the game turned to crunch time and putting the ball in the hands of Boston’s offense to score almost every time down. They did, and with some ball pressure on Nembhard at half court from Brown, a Tatum stop inside on Siakam, Brown pressure on Nembhard’s final shot and Horford’s rebound, Boston had enough stops to take a lead and Holiday secured his spot in Celtics history.

Yet Boston still walked away from the final play, an Aaron Nesmith clean look in the corner, having to talk it out. White and Brown discussed needing to switch, proud with the win, but knowing five more remain that’ll require even better, cleaner defensive play. Brissett said the Celtics prefer to defend straight-up and get to their switching. Mazzulla wanted a curveball going back to last summer. This one injected effort.

“(The zone) slowed them down a little bit, but still,” Tatum said. “When we started to come back and make a run and take control of the game, it was just about who wanted it more. When we were man or zone to start the game, or whatever, we didn’t match their intensity. They were playing with so much freedom and pace and getting into the paint whenever they wanted. That late in the game, it wasn’t about making adjustments, it was about just making plays. We had to get stops, we had to help each other, we had to get rebounds, regardless of whatever coverage we were in, it was just a choice we had to make.”


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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