“I think some of that defensive identity has been lost, and we have to get that back, and that’s where part of that is on me to make sure we get that back,” Mazzulla told reporters Sunday after Boston’s 128-102 defeat put them in a 3-0 hole in the best-of-seven series, per ASAP Sports.
It isn’t solely on Mazzulla to get it back. These are professionals who shouldn’t need a pat on the butt in order to have the desire to win, and defense largely rests on desire and will. But it also shouldn’t be a surprise if the Celtics aren’t able to do so at this point of the campaign. And that is because of the coach.
It was made rather clear this season that Mazzulla wanted to try and alter the identity of the Celtics. He consistently pointed to the number of 3-pointers the Green took, stressing the more attempts from long range, the better. His term “offensive intentionality” was used too many times to count. He opted to stray from the double-big lineup featuring Robert Williams and Al Horford even when Williams returned to full health. That lineup once perplexed opponents because of its ability to guard. Instead, Mazzulla rode with Derrick White to ensure the Celtics would play smaller and have more 3-point shooters on the floor. His lineups and substitutions, including keeping Grant Williams out of the rotation, all portrayed the changing mindset.
“I think just the execution, just we’re not connected,” Mazzulla said. “Usually at our best, we’re connected, we’re together, we’re physical on the defensive end, and we don’t have that right now.”
Again, it shouldn’t come as any surprise. But now it’s fair to view it as a miscalculation at best and a championship-hindering mistake at worse.
The Celtics initially found their identity under former coach Ime Udoka with him stressing buy-in on defense. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown developed their all-around games because of it. Udoka leaned into physicality, versatility and size, knowing it would go a long way on the defensive end. Mazzulla came in and stressed offense.
It created the opportunity for this to happen. And by this, we mean Boston’s implosion as the Green are just one loss from the offseason.
The Celtics are shooting 29.2% from long range in their series against the Heat. Brown is 2-for-20 and Horford is 3-for-13 from beyond the arc in three games. They’ve closely mimicked their turnover troubles from last postseason, too. The difference now, though, is they don’t have they can’t fall back on their defense. It was the case in a Game 1-altering third quarter. It was the case in the final six minutes of Miami’s crunch-time win in Game 2. And it was the case, well, throughout the entire Game 3 embarrassment.
“As far as the defense goes, for whatever reason, we have lost it,” Horford told reporters Sunday, per ASAP Sports. “… Our offense hurt our defense. We weren’t hitting shots, and then we weren’t getting back on defense, and we have to understand that our DNA, our core as a team is on the defensive end. That’s who we are, and that’s something that we have to find if we want to come back and win this series.”
No team has ever come from behind after trailing 3-0 in a best-of-seven. Boston’s defensive identity has gone MIA, both Mazzulla and his players know it. And while Horford surely is trying to stay positive, it feels too late to find it.