Joe Mazzulla and the Boston Celtics walked off the floor at Wells Fargo Center on Sunday with a gut-wrenching 116-115 overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Mazzulla also left the game with two timeouts still in his pocket.
As he has done for a large majority of this season, the Celtics head coach bucked the NBA coaching trend and decided not to call a timeout before Boston’s final play of the extra frame, which came after a defensive lapse led to James Harden’s go-ahead 3-pointer from the corner with 19 seconds left.
Despite the Celtics wasting precious time to get into their action and ultimately costing Marcus Smart, who just barely didn’t get his 3-point shot off in time, Mazzulla didn’t regret his decision about holding onto his timeouts. Al Horford didn’t second-guess Mazzulla, either, supporting his coach as his timeout strategy once again got magnified in the playoffs
“We’ve been doing it all year. We feel confident in that,” Horford told reporters, as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “I felt like it was the right thing. The momentum was there. Jayson (Tatum) had the ball in his hands, making a great play. Smart would have caught it a half-second earlier, it would have been down. I’m not getting too hung up on that play.”
Like Mazzulla, Horford believed the Celtics didn’t get into their play early enough. But the Celtics big man certainly didn’t have any issues with the play design despite it coming somewhat on the fly and without the benefit of Mazzulla talking it over in a huddle during a timeout.
“It’s frustrating,” Horford said. “(Tatum) was trying to make a play. We were just a little too late. But I felt like it was the right play.”
Mazzulla stuck to his timeout tendency at the end of regulation, too. The Celtics had a chance to win it after they climbed back from a 16-point second-half deficit and Mazzulla opted to try to catch the 76ers off guard following a game-tying bucket from Harden. Smart got another good look from beyond the arc in this situation, but his shot hit off the front rim.
Mazzulla’s timeout decision will continue to be scrutinized the further the Celtics go into the playoffs, especially if they don’t get the desired results in these pressure-packed moments.
Here are more notes from Celtics-76ers Game 4:
— Horford’s biggest contribution came on the defensive end and how he guarded NBA MVP Joel Embiid, who still wound up with 34 points on 11-for-26 shooting in 46 minutes. Horford blocked Embiid three times in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and finished tying his playoff career-high with five swats.
— Jaylen Brown carried the Celtics early on with the offense stumbling out of the gates. He scored the team’s first 10 points but he felt invisible during Boston’s comeback run in the fourth quarter as well as in overtime. That’s because Brown, who netted 23 points in the loss, only took three shots combined in those two critical periods.
“I guess I got to demand the ball a little bit more,” Brown told reporters, as seen on NBC Sports Boston postgame coverage. “I thought good things happened when I had it in my hands. I thought our offense was OK. I thought we chipped away, we made big-time shots, we got great looks all game long. We just came up short in the end.”
— Boston’s defense went to another level in the fourth quarter, holding the 76ers to 15 points in the stanza. It marked the second time this series the Celtics limited Philadelphia to less than 20 points in a quarter.
— Tatum was dreadful to start Game 4, missing his first eight shots and only scoring two points by halftime. He turned it around in the second half to finish with 24 points, including hitting a key shot in the final minute of overtime that angered 76ers coach Doc Rivers due to a push off Tatum got away with. Tatum also made key plays in other areas, grabbing a playoff career-high 18 points and also blocking four shots.
“I get paid a lot of money,” Tatum told reporters, per league-provided video. “I do it all. Assists, blocks, rebounds, steals and points are just what people expect. I take pride in impacting the game in every way possible.”
— Despite the way the game ended, the Celtics didn’t give off a feeling of despair following the defeat. Instead, they remained rather upbeat instead of dejected with a pivotal Game 5 on its way Tuesday night from TD Garden.
“I know that everybody’s feeling down, we lost the game and things like that,” Horford said. “I’m pretty encouraged by our group. I saw some growth in our group. Things that we haven’t been able to do all year. And to be able to do them on this type of stage, I’m very encouraged for our group.”