BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla benched three starters early in the third quarter, calling it part of accountability after the game, while Jayson Tatum addressed teammates in an animated fashion in the ensuing timeout. Kristaps Porzingis’ recalled his coach’s message in the wake of a shocking loss to the short-handed Lakers.
“It was really good, it was on point again,” Porzingis told CLNS Media post-game. “He was saying we cannot, because he felt and I also felt, when we were down a little bit, because we haven’t been down a lot this season, it’s not the end of the world … we’re gonna be down, we’re gonna have terrible games like we did tonight. We gotta stay with it. We’re down 10, we get two stops, we score two times, we’re down 4-5 .It’s a completely different game. We just have to stay like this … if the game’s not going our way completely … we’re gonna be in those situations like we were tonight again. It’s how we bounce back from that.”
Tatum responded by taking a Rui Hachimura bump to the chest atop the three-point arc that sent the Lakers wing to the floor. He dove on top of him with the Celtics trailing, 77-71, after a lackluster first half effort that further incensed a crowd already angry with LeBron James and Anthony Davis missing a marquee game on the Lakers side.
It became a fleeting moment of energy in a new low for Boston. The Lakers mostly maintained their double-digit advantage and stunned Boston, 114-105. A loss Mazzulla mostly shrugged off, and several times laughed at post-game. He clearly addressed the team in a different manner, while acknowledging the unacceptable and effort-based nature of the loss, but he sparred over the use of embarrassment, said turnovers just happened before going personal on the topic of why the message of avoiding a let-up didn’t get across.
All that followed a night that could’ve reflected, loss aside, a renewed urgency by both Mazzulla and the players to shake a recent lull that didn’t hurt the team in the loss column. They squandered a 20-point lead to the Pacers on Tuesday and let up similarly against the Pelicans the night before. Those things happen, and while self-correction averted disaster, Porzingis mentioned one of Mazzulla’s themes on Thursday. That lessons can go unlearned in a win where a team might’ve escaped bad play. Yet Mazzulla didn’t acknowledge issues that plagued the Lakers loss despite players speaking after him showing a desire to address them. A team that once asked for hard coaching sounded ready to hear tough talk.
“We don’t sugarcoat it,” Jaylen Brown said. “Even though he came out and said he’s excited, this is not a good spot to be in. We don’t want to build bad habits, we want to play the game the right way. We want to guard, defend, respect our opponents and that’s stuff you’ve gotta do on a night in, night out basis and we didn’t do that tonight from top to bottom. As a leader on this team, I take responsibility for it.”
By the second half, trailing 14 points after a 5-0 LA flurry to close the first, Mazzulla resorted to pulling Porzingis, Brown and Jrue Holiday three minutes into the third, only returning Holiday to the floor while the bench provided a spark. He held a timeout until later, but used one quickly to begin the fourth quarter when a positive 4-0 start quickly unraveled into two uncontested transition run-outs from Taurean Prince and D’Angelo Russell.
Austin Reaves took over LA’s offensive burden alongside Russell, scoring 11 points in the first quarter and dropping three of the Lakers’ five threes. The shooting surge, 13-for-25 (52%), in the first half came as a rarity for an LA team that typically struggles to shoot. Boston didn’t give away the ball often in January, nine first quarter turnovers powering the Lakers’ early shot quality, but timely ones in the wins over the Pelicans and Pacers foreshadowed Thursday’s flood. Porzingis and Brown gave away the ball three times each in that opening frame to mark their worst performances of the season. They finished with six of Boston’s 15, Holiday adding four more.
“It was weird, because we were only down three after the first quarter but it feels like we should’ve been down more,” Mazzulla said. “Did you watch those nine (turnovers) to start the quarter? Those were pretty fun, weren’t they? … they were some pretty interesting turnovers, weren’t they?”
Alongside Tatum’s tussle for the ball with Hachimura, his pair of threes, a layup and a feed to Sam Hauser as part of a bench shooting burst midway through the third successfully cut the Lakers’ 14-point lead to six with some hope that shooting regression would flip the result. LA never cooled down though, and six misses by the Celtics in the paint helped get the Lakers out on the run in a game where they outscored Boston 21-17 on the fast break. Entering the fourth, the Celtics cut only four points off the lead to the loud disapproval of fans. Mazzulla embraced the boos.
Tatum followed by calling it a bad week at work, already showing his urgency with his play, bench discussions and calls for adjustments against the Clippers. That leadership ultimately falls on him and Brown, but slowing whatever trends matter across the blowout losses against LA and Milwaukee, late game slip-ups in the Denver loss and attention to detail against the Pelicans and Pacers will matter though. That’s why Mazzulla smiled after the Lakers loss, citing practices to come across four off days surrounding Sunday’s Grizzlies game. It still struck an odd tone for the letdown that preceded it.
“It’s great. It’s good. I just think it just happens. Stretches of bad basketball happen. You work your butt off every day to minimize those,” Mazzulla said. “We can’t sit here and act like we’re too entitled for it to happen to us. It happens and it’s a matter of how we respond to it and can we work through it? … to think that we’re not gonna go through difficult times during an 82-game NBA season is not the right way to look at it. So am I pissed about losing? Yes. But am I ecstatic about the opportunity for us to grow as a team? I’m more happy about that … if we hang onto this one, then we won’t be ready for practice on Saturday and we won’t be ready for Memphis.”