MIAMI — Boston Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla admitted he didn’t adequately prepare the Celtics to play, faces a disconnect with his players and stands responsible for the team losing its defensive identity in a staggering press conference after his team fell behind 0-3 to Miami in the east finals.
It now appears a looming lost opportunity at a championship could fall on the coach who helped uplift the team after Ime Udoka’s firing. Even if the Celtics fade from this postseason and Mazzulla deserves the brunt of the blame, a leadership void Mazzulla leaned on the players to fill for much of the year will remain vacated.
“I think the most important thing is just sticking together, and then I have to be better,” Mazzulla said post-game. “I’ve gotta put them in better positions, I’ve gotta get them ready to play and I have to have the game plan ready for us to be physical and be ready to execute. It’s important that we stick together.”
After Jayson Tatum ran for a breakout layup late in the third quarter to cut a 31-point Miami Heat lead to 27 — a 4-0 run — Erik Spoelstra halted it with a timeout. The Celtics only used one in the second quarter before Miami’s lead ballooned to 22 points before halftime, then they didn’t call one again until the third quarter, when the deficit reached 23. Al Horford gave two speeches in the huddle after halftime. During Spoelstra’s brief stoppage, Mazzulla met with his assistant coaches and not with the team.
For all the analysis of timeout calling this season, a rigid offense and disconnected defense cost the Celtics a realistic chance at coming back in the east finals on Sunday, falling behind by 30 points before the fourth quarter in the eventual 128-102 loss. Mazzulla’s central message, controlling the margins of the game, faded as the Heat took control of the little things and crushed the Celtics with a 56.8% shooting performance.
“Joe’s real big, a lot of times, on not bailing us out on stuff when we’re playing like s***,” Marcus Smart said after Game 2. “We’ve gotta look ourselves in the mirror. Joe could call a timeout, and then what, we come out and do the same thing? It’s on us … we’ve gotta start helping each other out on both ends.”
Mazzulla inserted Derrick White back into the starting lineup after the Robert Williams III and Horford combination faded through Games 1-2, and when Williams III hit early foul trouble off the bench, it effectively took him out of the game. Mazzulla won a challenge to keep him in the mix briefly, but he fouled again before halftime, unable to stay on his feet against Jimmy Butler. Williams III played 4:28 through two quarters.
Jaylen Brown’s shooting struggles and inability to take advantage of mismatches rattled Boston’s early offensive flow, but he played eight straight minutes to start the game. A continued tendency to help away from Caleb Martin and other Heat wings when Miami penetrated the paint took the Celtics out of it early.
“We changed the matchup in Games 2 and 3, to where we have a smaller guy on him looking to make sure he doesn’t do that,” Mazzulla said. “At times, if you want to double Butler or put two on the ball with the shooter, he ends up being the guy you shift off of. So we just have to be more disciplined in the first level of our defense to where we don’t have those breakdowns.”
The Heat hunted White, Gabe Vincent driving through him with ease on the way to 29 points, and Butler raced Miami into the half court to hit hand-off threes. Brown lost the ball driving late in the quarter, holding one hand up in confusion as Vincent ran for a layup following Kyle Lowry’s outlet pass.
Mazzulla preached all year how offense can set up defense, which led to the Celtics taking tightly-contested threes against a Heat team that decided to take that shot away early in the shot clock. Shot selection didn’t help Boston come back as difficult shots bounced off the rim and sometimes met nothing but air. Malcolm Brogdon, who scored 0 points, Brown and Tatum all experienced that before halftime. Shooting 46 threes didn’t prevent 15 Celtics turnovers.
Tatum swung his arm in frustration after Duncan Robinson beat him to the basket off the dribble, motioning that the Heat forward shoved him away with his arm. Robinson back cut Brogdon plays later, before Martin did the same, meeting Tatum inside before firing a pass to Vincent for three. Defenders didn’t back each other up.
“If you can kind of be creative, you find soft moments in the (Boston) switch to take advantage of it,” Robinson said.
Robinson landed an alley-oop to Bam Adebayo for a double-digit lead, extending the Heat’s second quarter shooting surge to 7-for-8. Adebayo spun past Brown and dunked, sending the Celtics star tumbling to the floor along the baseline.
Individual efforts and an inability to force turnovers separated a pick-your-poison, analytically sound Boston defense from the forceful unit of one year ago. Sunday marked Mazzulla’s first admission of that.
“Some of that defensive identity has been lost, and we have to get that back,” he said. “Part of that is on me to make sure we get that back … these last couple of games, the execution. We’re not connected. Usually at our best, we’re connected, we’re together, we’re physical on the defensive end and we don’t have that right now.”
Smart aimlessly drove the rebound into Butler for an offensive foul. He drew a technical foul when Miami led by 18, and later swung his arm toward Martin, receiving no punishment upon review. The broadcast caught he and Butler jawing, a moment where Butler seemed to notice how dysfunctional the Celtics appeared.
Only a Miami cold spell, missing quality looks and turning the ball over through eight empty possessions over nine between the second and third quarters provided hope. But Sam Hauser sat, Williams III mostly did the same, Boston’s offense flat-lined to 39.8% FG against the zone — and kept leaving Martin open in the corner. Grant Williams logged nearly 30 minutes after mostly sitting earlier in the playoffs. That all stems from coaching. Mazzulla never seemed empowered to make difficult rotation decisions, but the core players failed.
“I don’t even know where to start,” Brown said. “An obvious let down. I feel like we let our fanbase, our organization down. We let ourselves down, and it was collective. We can point fingers, but in reality, it was just embarrassing.”
Effort plays embodied Sunday’s loss though. Adebayo began picking the Celtics apart with give-and-goes, Boston regularly jumping at the ball handler while Adebayo dunked or drew free throws, building the Heat’s lead to 24. Adebayo stuffed Tatum as Williams III clogged the lane on the roll, Mazzulla’s spacing emphasis breaking down in a loss. The Celtics never gave him a chance with their tendency to lean on their talent to prevail in tough moments. Mazzulla, in turn, never forced the group to acknowledge weaknesses holding them back earlier.
Boston fell to 11-for-42 from three and 31-for-106 (29.2%) in the series. Down by 30, on the way to a 3-0 deficit, Payton Pritchard, Luke Kornet and Hauser joined Williams and Smart on the floor. The team’s stars tried to defend their head coach on the podium, but already failed to do so on the floor.
“We never recovered. That’s on all of us as a unit,” Tatum said. “We didn’t play well at all. Obviously, by the score, it showed.”