Green Teamers have spent months shouting from Boston rooftops in hopes Celtics first-year coach Joe Mazzulla would develop a better feel for the game, especially in the most important moments.
Mazzulla did just that Tuesday night when the Celtics took the floor against the Miami Heat in a win-or-go-home Game 4 in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics coach had arguably the best game of his first season at the helm. His ability to be at his best was rooted in a few specific, and potentially game-altering, decisions in Boston’s 116-99 victory at Kaseya Center.
Perhaps the most notable came in the form of a third-quarter timeout.
“He just got us composed,” Celtics star Jaylen Brown told reporters after the win, per ASAP Sports. “It looked like potentially we was in a bad spot, and he called a timeout. I thought that was a good decision.”
With 8:27 left in the third quarter and the Celtics in the midst of cutting a nine-point deficit to 61-58 following a pair of 3-pointers from Jayson Tatum, Brown found himself on the sideline with nowhere to go. Miami’s Jimmy Butler and Kevin Love were flying at him, and it certainly felt like a turnover was inevitable, especially since Boston turned the ball over eight times in the first half and Brown’s ballhandling isn’t known for being top notch. With the play clearly breaking down, Mazzulla whistled for a timeout. It certainly wasn’t something Green Teamers had grown accustomed to, Mazzulla stopping a broken play before it leads to a worse result. But that’s just what he did.
The Celtics came out of that timeout and had one of their best offensive sequences to that point, which was capped off by Al Horford finding Derrick White for a 3-pointer in the corner. It tied the game 61-61 with 8:16 remaining in the third and Boston never trailed thereafter. The stoppage was sandwiched between two halves of an 18-0 scoring spurt, the C’s turning a 61-52 deficit into a 70-61 lead.
Mazzulla’s explanation for doing so should bring joy to Celtics fans. Again, it’s what many had been waiting for.
“Just wanted to make sure we got a good shot on that, and I felt like the possessions before that didn’t go well defensively,” Mazzulla told reporters, per ASAP Sports. “But we were still playing with a good sense of pace, but we obviously lost the advantage, and wanted to reset a little bit. We had lost a 50/50 ball to start the quarter that I think that we just had to nip that in the bud and took an opportunity to do that.”
Who knows how it would have played out if Brown turned the ball over on that possession, allowing the Heat to get out in transition and maybe extend their lead back to five. Maybe the Celtics would not have put together that result-altering run in the third quarter? Maybe Boston’s season would be over Wednesday morning without it? Maybe it’s somewhere in the middle.
Nevertheless, Mazzulla has been criticized consistently during the regular season and postseason for not using his timeouts to stop runs or create better situations for his team. Sometimes he’s been defiant and other times he’s admitted his mistake. Well, he did it in a big moment Tuesday night. And while it wasn’t Mazzulla’s only individual win — he played Grant Williams more, re-inserted Tatum when needed in the fourth quarter after a timeout, stopped Miami runs in both the first and second quarters with timeouts, etc. — it was the most impactful. And most promising.
The Celtics will need Mazzulla to have that same feel for the game moving forward as Boston tries to become the first-ever NBA team to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. He’ll have his next chance to do so with Game 5 between the Celtics and Heat scheduled for Thursday at TD Garden.