What we’re learning is stylistically, Joe Mazzulla is his own man with his own concepts as the Celtics coach.
He does not like calling timeouts to stop opponent runs, a method that may backfire short term but could serve as an educational opportunity for a team that has endured its share of lapses in this early season.
As the Washington Wizards rallied from a 51-27 deficit late in the first half Sunday, Mazzulla refrained from calling a timeout, only talking to his team during a Wizards mandatory timeout with 2 minutes, 34 minutes left in the first half.
The Celtics watched their lead whittled to 11 points by halftime. But after the break, the Celtics were able to return to their good habits and take control with defense.
Timeouts during opponent surges are customary for NBA coaches. Stopping play is a means of curtailing the momentum, reiterating the game plan and getting the players a breather.
But for some coaches, they relish the opportunity to see how their team responds to adversity. For decades, Phil Jackson would sit for several minutes, legs crossed and watch his Bulls try to maneuver their way out of deficits and opponent runs.
Mazzulla appears to have the same philosophy, even if it might cost his team some leads and maybe some games.
The Celtics are trying to develop their own personality separate from last year’s team. Mazzulla’s team defensively has struggled but is developing the type of profile he likes long term. Boston is allowing opponents 30.3 3-point attempts per game, fourth fewest in the NBA, but opponents are making 37.3 percent of those attempts, 26th in the NBA.
“I love 3-pointers; I like math,” Mazzulla said after Sunday’s win, meaning the fewer 3-point attempts opposing teams take in a generation where long-range shots are a primary scoring weapon, the better.
“I’m not as concerned with the defense,” Mazzulla said. “We’re fourth in shot selection defense and we’re last in midrange points per shot and we’re first in midrange frequency. Some of the stuff we just have to do a little bit of a better job. Our effort is always there. We just have to execute consistently.”
The hope is the Celtics improve defensively enough to lower opponents’ percentage but not the attempts. For example, in the Oct. 24 loss to Chicago, the Celtics allowed a combined seven 3-pointers from Ayo Dosunmu and Zach LaVine and both are shooting better than 45 percent from beyond the arc so far.
In Friday’s loss to Cleveland, the Celtics yielded a combined 11 3-pointers from Caris LeVert and Donovan Mitchell. Again, both are shooting at least 45 percent from 3-point land with LeVert shooting nearly 49 percent.
Percentage will eventually sway in the Celtics’ favor, and Mazzulla said he’s willing to take early lumps to transform the team into his particular style.
One of the biggest questions when Mazzulla took over for Ime Udoka was his style or did he have one? He spent three seasons as an assistant and was beginning to prepare himself for a head-coaching opportunity when he interviewed for the Utah Jazz job that eventually went to fellow Celtics assistant Will Hardy.
But Mazzulla is such a man of few words; he offered little hints to his coaching philosophy. Celtics faithful have seen some of his tendencies on the fly, such as refraining from timeouts, being meticulous when opting for coach’s challenges — he’s undefeated so far — and being liberal with his playing rotations.
He kept Luke Kornet on the bench for the first few games until Noah Vonleh couldn’t stay out of foul trouble and now Kornet has earned the backup center role. And it appears Mazzulla will not put Blake Griffin in the game for garbage time minutes. He cleared the bench in the waning minutes of Sunday’s win over Washington but Griffin did not play.
The unique aspect of Mazzulla’s coaching tenure is he’s going to have to learn on the fly, fail in some hunches that could benefit the Celtics long term. The Celtics’ two losses have been a byproduct of porous defense and frustrations with officials against Chicago and pick-and-roll breakdowns against Cleveland that allowed its hot shooters to attempt easier 3-point attempts.
Mazzulla appeared convinced the Celtics issues can be fixed and he’s definitely planning on molding this year’s team in his style, even if that style is still being conceived.