MIAMI — Coming into Game 3, the Boston Celtics had a plan and a purpose. They knew that one more loss would send their season into irreparable trouble. They came with the best of intentions.
Then it all fell apart. So after going 0-3 in a 128-102 loss to the Miami Heat, Joe Mazzulla went out and fell on his sword.
“I’m not ready to play them,” he said. “I didn’t execute the right game plan. I’m not putting them in the right frame of mind to be ready, it’s my job to make sure they’re connected and they’re ready to play, and I’m not doing that.
But why? Why can’t the Celtics, who always play best when their backs are against the wall, look like they’re over the top?
“It’s a little bit confusing because we’re so committed and seem locked in going into the game. But to go out there and do that is a performance that can’t happen,” Grant Williams said. Athletic. “Even in a regular season, that doesn’t happen. To do that in the conference finals is scary.
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But as Mazzulla said when questioned about some of the big decisions he made this year, hindsight is 20/20. He and his staff have put together detailed game plans for players who have contended in the playoffs over the years, but then the system doesn’t quite catch on, and that attention to detail leaves them with too many cracks to cover.
Mazzulla was asked, “I don’t want to say you’ve lost this team, but is there a disconnect between you and the players at this point?”
“Yeah, that’s where I need 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 step on the floor.”
When asked what was the reason for the disconnection, he said he was not sure. It is not clear why this team is not playing up to its standards. This should not fall solely on Mazzulla’s shoulders as the center is well prepared to weather these trying moments with its years of experience. Although his players blamed themselves, sometimes they were at a loss for words as to why they were so lost.
“There’s nothing he can tell us. There’s nothing he can do to make a team compete, make a team play hard,” Williams said. “As much as you can say it can be a head coach, but we look each other in the eye and say, ‘What’s going on?’ It must be said. Because as players, we’ve been here before and we’ve been doing it year after year. Not seeing the same edge on us is something I’ve never experienced before. It looked like we rested tonight and as a player, that’s unacceptable and frustrating.
Each player who spoke after the game was asked to explain what the disconnect was in the locker room. They may point to a waning of certain defensive principles or a lack of urgency on offense. But that’s all a coach can do. It’s really up to the players to play with motivation.
“With the layoff, 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’s learning and he’s trying his best. So for us, we’ve got to help him out in that way and give him some kind of assurance. Because it’s hard to coach a team when we’re doing some of the things we did tonight. .
Mazzulla always resisted showing despair. When asked if now is the time to make such a grand gesture, he said the most important thing is to stick together.
Even if his locker room and timeout speeches need more fire or aren’t loud enough, Mazzulla said it’s his duty to do it.
“I don’t know. You say what you have to say at that moment, but I have to be good at that moment,” Mazzulla said. “When we step on that floor, we’re ready to execute, ready to be physical, tougher than the other team. I have to make sure we are ready to play. That is my job.”
Miami pushed Boston to reevaluate its defensive approach throughout the series, with Mazzulla finally calling for a double team with Jimmy Butler late in the second quarter. The Celtics were hanging on to a single-digit deficit until the 7:20 mark, when Caleb Martin buried a 3 off a Duncan Robinson assist and Mazzulla called a timeout to try to fix things.
Miami’s lead continued to grow as Butler and Robinson continued to breeze past Boston’s perimeter defenders, with Bam Adebayo catching everyone in sight. Mazzulla made subs and kept things out, then decided to double Butler after Miami called a timeout with three minutes left in the half. While that helped them get stops, Boston took ordinary 3s and didn’t look terrible.
“We don’t consistently play at that edge and at that certain level, and that’s what breaks us down as a team because you can’t have (three) guys ready to make those plays and then only one or two guys can see,” Williams said. “It breaks it and it takes life. For us, we played as a happy team, and tonight it was like we were playing without any joy, without any fun, without any hope. I’ve never seen that. You know, it’s the first time I’ve seen that.
Mazzulla pointed out how the team doesn’t press for crossmatches on half-court possessions, and they have trouble playing against a set defense. Miami dictated the pace, and that was unacceptable for a Celtics team whose offense relies on uptempo play to create easy chances. But the heat does not give them away and they cannot be overcome when the fire burns from the depths.
“Tonight was tough,” Jayson Tatum said. “I think we were turning the ball over from the start of the game. We didn’t shoot the ball well. They shot the ball very well. Honestly, it felt like we never recovered. It exists for all of us as a unit. We didn’t play well. Apparently, by the score, it showed.
It all revolved around Buttler, who is, humbly, one of the best players in the world. Tatum needs to hold up his end of the bargain and beat Butler, but the Celtics are so out of sorts early in this game that he has yet to find a rhythm.
Early in the second half it was clear things weren’t going back when Buttler looked a familiar pose.
He remembers when Al Horford hit a 3 early in Game 1 and got down on his knees and made a big D with his hands. So when Gabe Vincent — who had 29 more points than Jaylen Brown and Tatum combined — buried the 3 that sealed the Celtics’ fate, he took a knee and proposed to Horford that his season was over.
“I think they’re a bully that attacks us, and you stand up to a bully and you either fight back or you let them keep doing it,” Williams said. “Because the whole season, we didn’t allow that to happen. Even when we were playing this team, we knew it was going to be a battle, but we were shocked and it looked like we were getting hit in the face. So we have to find a way to keep our defense or we’re going to f—— take the fight to them. Gotta go. One or the other.”
Miami has two great playmakers in Butler and Adebayo who can go every inch of the court and create great looks. Erik Spoelstra is surrounded by all kinds of shooters around his stars.
The Celtics rarely found anything when they were off and running. Tatum and Brown played as a triple team all night. The defensive rotations were too late to stop Miami’s incredible shooting.
The Celtics lost.
Nothing works. The heat was always a step up. The Celtics couldn’t find their feet for more than a minute before Miami ran all over them. As bad as the mental component was, this loss is rooted in the vague structure of this team that has defined its season.
“Last year, one thing I remember is if our offense stagnates and we can’t score, guess what, the other team doesn’t either,” Williams said. “We had a certain level of grit and a certain level of edge and a certain level of mentality and togetherness that we haven’t played this year.”
Now they are on the brink of elimination in a season where they all have been. So they can’t be idle now.
“I don’t think so. I hope not. That’s not what I’m saying,” Brown said. “I am going to fight till the end. Try to get our guys ready for the next game, we come out and put our best foot forward.
(Photo by Jayson Tatum: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)