MIAMI — Going into Game 3, the Boston Celtics had a plan and a goal. They knew one more loss would push their season to an irreparable breaking point. They came with the best intentions.
Then everything fell apart. So after a 128-102 loss to lose 0-3 to the Miami Heat, Joe Mazzulla came out and fell on his sword.
“I just didn’t have them ready to play,” he said. “I just didn’t execute the right game plan. I didn’t put them in the right mindset to be ready, and it’s my job to make sure they’re connected and ready to play, and I didn’t.
But why? Why can’t the team that has always played their best when their backs are against the wall look like they’re in over their head?
“It’s a bit confusing because we’re so committed and seem locked into the game. But to go out there and do that is a performance that can’t happen,” Grant Williams said Athleticism. “Even in the regular season, that can’t happen. And doing that in the conference final is terrible.
But as Mazzulla said when asked about some of his biggest decisions this year, hindsight is 20/20. He and his team have developed comprehensive game plans for players who have struggled through the playoffs for years, but the system doesn’t quite hold up and the attention to detail leaves too many cracks to cover. .
Mazzulla was asked: “I don’t want to say you lost this team, but is there a disconnect between you and the players at this point?”
“Yeah, that’s where I have to be better,” Mazzulla replied. “Find out what this team needs to make sure they’re connected, they’re physical and they’re together by the time we hit the floor.”
When asked what caused the disconnect, he said he wasn’t sure. We don’t know why this team is not playing at their level. This shouldn’t just fall on Mazzulla’s shoulders, as this core has been well prepared to weather these tough times with their experience over the years. Even though his players blamed themselves, there was still a loss of words as to why they sometimes looked so lost.
“There is nothing he can tell us. He can’t do anything to help a team compete, to help a team play hard,” Williams said. “As much as you can pretend it can be the head coach, but we have to look each other in the eye and say, ‘What’s going on? Because as players, like, we’ve been here before, we’ve done this year after year. And looking at yourself and not seeing that same edge is something I’ve never experienced. It looked like we went to bed tonight and as a player that’s unacceptable and frustrating.
Every player who spoke after the game was asked to explain what this disconnect in the dressing room is all about. They can indicate certain defensive principles in decline or a lack of urgency to go into the attack. But the coach can’t do much. It’s up to the players to play truly inspired.
“In terms of disconnecting, I always have to support our head coach,” Williams said. “It’s his first year. You know, it’s one of those things that he learns and he does his best. So, for us, we have to help him on this path and give him some kind of assurance. Because it’s hard to coach a team when you’re doing stuff like that tonight.
Mazzulla has always resisted showing frustration when asked about the team’s struggles when so much is at stake. When asked if now was the time to make this kind of grand gesture , he replied that the most important thing was to stay together.
Whether his locker room speeches and timeouts need more fire or aren’t loud enough, Mazzulla said it’s up to him to make it happen.
“I don’t know. In the moment you think you’re saying what needs to be said, but in the moment I just have to be better,” Mazzulla said. “I have to make sure that when we get on that floor we “We’re ready to perform, we’re ready to be physical, we’re ready to play harder than the other team. That’s my job.”
Miami caused Boston to reevaluate its defensive approach throughout the series, with Mazzulla eventually calling a double team on Jimmy Butler late in the second quarter. The Celtics clung to a single-digit deficit until 7:20, when Caleb Martin buried a 3 on a Duncan Robinson assist and Mazzulla called a timeout to try to make things right.
But Miami’s lead grew steadily as Bam Adebayo corralled everyone in sight while Butler and Robinson continued to drive past Boston’s perimeter defenders. Mazzulla continued to do subs and let things play out, then finally decided to double Butler after Miami called a timeout with just over three minutes left in the half. Even though it helped them get saves, Boston kept taking mediocre 3s and missing them terribly.
“We don’t play with that advantage and that certain level consistently and that’s what breaks us as a team because you can’t have (three) guys who are ready to make those plays and then one or two who just stare,” Williams said. “It breaks it down and it takes the life away. For us, we were able to play as a happy team and tonight we looked like we were playing without any joy, without any pleasure, without any confidence, and I never saw that. You know, it’s the first time I’ve seen him.
Mazzulla pointed out that the team isn’t pushing for crossover games early in half-court possessions and that they’re struggling to play against an established defense. Miami dictated the pace and that was untenable for a Celtics side whose offense relied on fast pace to create easy opportunities. But the Heat aren’t giving them up and they’re nearly impossible to beat when they catch fire deep.
“Tonight was tough,” Jayson Tatum said. “I think from the start of the game we were returning the ball. We didn’t shoot the ball well. They shot the ball very well. Just kinda felt like we never recovered, honestly. It’s on all of us as a unit. We didn’t play well at all. Obviously, by the score, it showed.
It was all about Butler, who is, humbly, one of the best players in the world. Tatum was supposed to keep his end of the bargain and go blow for blow with Butler, but the Celtics looked completely lost going into this game and he still couldn’t find a rhythm.
It became clear things weren’t going to change when they saw Butler strike a familiar pose early in the second half.
He recalled when Al Horford hit a 3 early in the opener and dropped to his knees to form a big T with his hands, a rare act of chatter for the usually reserved veteran. So when Gabe Vincent – whose 29 points were more than Brown and Tatum combined – buried the 3 that sealed the Celtics’ fate, he took the knee and proposed to Horford that his season was over.
“I think they’re a bully harassing us and either you stand up to a bully and stand up for yourself or allow them to continue to do that,” Williams said. “Because throughout the season we haven’t allowed things like that to happen. And even when we’ve played against this team, we know it’s a battle, but it looks like we’re shocked , we get punched in the face. So we have to stay on our toes and find a way or we have to f—— fight them. One or the other.”
Miami had two great playmakers in Butler and Adebayo who could squeeze their way through every inch of the field and create great looks. Erik Spoelstra surrounds his stars with all kinds of shooters who keep moving and doing all kinds of big reads to make the Celtics’ substitutions and doubles more difficult.
The Celtics found next to nothing when they weren’t running. Tatum and Jaylen Brown rode in triple teams all night. Defensive rotations were just too late to stop Miami’s incredible shot.
The Celtics just lost.
Nothing worked. The Heat have always been one step ahead. The Celtics couldn’t find their footing for over a minute before Miami crushed them. As bad as the mentality component was, that loss was rooted in the unclear structure of this team that defined its season.
“Last year the only thing I remember was if our offense was stagnant and we couldn’t score, guess what, the other team wouldn’t score either,” Williams said. “We had a certain level of grit and a certain level of advantage and a certain level of mindset and friendliness that we haven’t played with this year.”
Now they’re on the verge of being knocked out in a season they were all-in. So they can’t just throw in the towel now.
“I don’t think so. I hope not. That’s not who I am,” Brown said. and we will put our best foot forward.
(Jayson Tatum photo: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)