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Joe Mazzulla Says Communication Made Celtics Different This Year

Joe Mazzulla finally addressed a question he and the Celtics’ players mostly shook off all season. What’s different?

Boston shook off its allusions to banner 18 following unfinished business a year ago. The team went with different here, which became clear through the team’s consistency, dominant regular season play on both ends and two playoff series largely free from slip-ups and drama. The Celtics took care of the Heat and Cavs in five games after losses in Game 2 of each, rattling off three straight wins to finish them by reacting to how each opponent played them.

“I think that’s the real answer to what everybody asked all year about, oh, what’s the difference between this year and last year … the difference is we’ve had time and experiences to pull from, and we’ve had time to talk about those,” Mazzulla said during his Friday Zoom session in response to a Boston Sports Journal question.

“We’ve had time to talk about how we want to go about what our daily process is. We’ve had time to talk about how we want to handle situations. We’ve had time to talk about how we’ve handled past situations … throughout the offseason and throughout the season, we’ve had time to build a relationship together, to have open and honest communication … the words that you use end up reflecting the type of group that you have or the type of group you want to emulate … how we handle successes and failures together.”’

Both Miami and Cleveland showed Jayson Tatum intense pressure and crowds. The Heat tried to coax Jaylen Brown into derailing the offense by stashing Tyler Herro on him. The Cavs aggressively helped at the rim in layers, forcing kick-outs and daring Al Horford to shoot. Tatum and Horford’s offensive struggles didn’t deter either, both eventually breaking out in Game 5 against the Celtics after relying on Derrick White, Jrue Holiday and Brown to create offense. The defense rallied from Game 2 letdowns with performances that resembled past greatness on that end and contrasted against last year’s lapses on that end.

So what changed? The personnel did, certainly, though Kristaps Porzingis’ calf injury in Game 4 at Miami risked lapsing into last year’s play style and relying on the three. Shooting 40% from deep allowed the Celtics to close out the Heat in Game 5, along with three major injury absences on Miami’s side that Cleveland would also suffer from, but the Cavs made a concerted effort to out-shoot Boston from three and did for four games. That led to Boston allowing paint looks once Donovan Mitchell went down, reducing the volume of threes that Cleveland could generate.

“The one thing this team has done a good job of this season is not playing with any expectations,” Mazzulla said. “If you’re winning by a lot, if you’re losing by a lot, it doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, it takes what it takes and you gotta be present. The team has done a good job fighting for that. I think that’s important, managing our own expectations.”

Mazzulla alluded to other differences throughout the season, including timing, with this team featuring players mostly set in their contracts, individual accomplishments and age to the point where they’re willing to sacrifice or do what it takes to win. Everyone says they want to win, he said, until it’s time to do s*** you don’t want to do. That included finishing possessions, deferring, screening or in Horford’s case especially, standing in front of Darius Garland possessions after possession. Luke Kornet needed to guard Evan Mobley in isolation. Tatum had to score or pass through traffic. They all did it.

That’s not to declare an east finals berth a success given the competition they played. Boston also couldn’t control that, and had to handle that advantage they earned in the regular season the right way. It would’ve been easy to expect both series extending to Game 6 because the Celtics letdown when their opponents ruled Jimmy Butler and Mitchell out. Instead, they built leads in each game and recovered from a second quarter deficit in Game 5 quickly on Wednesday, the same way they never lost more than two consecutive games in the regular season. An 8-2 start to the postseason improved the Celtics to 72-20.

Brad Stevens praised Mazzulla earlier this year for successfully setting a message the team could follow. Whether entering games and series without expectations, managing the margins, making the right play and allowing players to embrace performances where their scoring doesn’t drive their success, that allowed each player to feel important even on nights where everyone couldn’t receive shots or tons of points.

Different challenges lie ahead, potentially more fully-loaded opponents that feature MVP candidates and crunch time settings, Mazzulla noting that he’s looking around the league for inspiration from situations other teams have played in. Boston has shown an ability to adapt, though, and that could become their defining feature on the way to a championship.

Horford endorsed his head coach’s performance on Wednesday, maybe the most important affirmation from a player who didn’t know Mazzulla well in September, 2022, is two years older than him and decided to trust him — even when he moved Horford to the bench.

“Joe has been key for our success,” Horford said. “I feel like he has put us in positions defensively, but also offensively, for us to continue to grow as players on the offensive side of the ball. Continue to make reads, continue to figure things out. There are a lot of ways teams try to play us, and I feel like he’s been great tactically with our group. Making us see things, making us think about them and us being able to process so much information. J.T. and J.B., I feel like, have been great with that, because it’s a lot that gets thrown at them, and different things that they have to navigate. Joe has been really good with that and just as a leader of our group. We follow him. He demands a lot from us and we’re right there plugging away. We know we still have a ways to go, but he’s done a very good job this year.”

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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