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Joe Mazzulla’s learning curve includes how much playing time is too much

Al Horford plays big minutes and pulls down big rebounds for the Celtics, including this one in New Orleans.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS — With 5 minutes, 22 seconds left in the Celtics’ win over the Hawks on Wednesday in Atlanta, Jaylen Brown converted a driving layup that gave Boston a 29-point lead.

Brown was on the court with fellow starters Jayson Tatum, Al Horford and Derrick White, as well as backup Sam Hauser. And at the time, despite the lopsided margin, there was no one at the scorer’s table to check in.

Hawks coach Nate McMillan made the decision easier for Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla by calling a timeout and taking his regular rotation players out, but it was fair to wonder why Boston’s stars were still in the game in the first place. Yes, big leads can evaporate quickly. But 29-point advantages do not vanish in fewer than six minutes.


Before his team beat the New Orleans Pelicans, 117-109, on Friday, Mazzulla, who is in his first year as a head coach, acknowledged that he’s still trying to find a rhythm for how to handle blowouts.

“We’re still learning,” he said. “I’ve seen it go both ways. I think just listening to my staff, listening to the players. They do a great job of reminding me. So I’m just kind of learning and getting a feel for that.”

Tatum entered Friday averaging 37.2 minutes per game, tied for fourth most in the NBA. Horford, the 36-year-old big man, is averaging 31.1 minutes, his most since the 2017-18 season.

Mazzulla was asked whether it is important to try to steal extra rest for his stars over the course of this long, grueling season.

“It definitely is,” he said. “It’s just something I’ve got to grow at and be comfortable with as a coach, and just listening to the staff. They do a good job of heckling me in those situations, so I’ve got to learn there.”


Smart sits again

Marcus Smart on Friday missed his second consecutive game due to right ankle soreness. Smart said he is still dealing with swelling related to the injury he suffered during the conference finals against the Miami Heat last season.

Derrick White split the Pelicans' defense for this basket on his way to 26 points in the Celtics' win.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

“I think it’s just the consistent trauma that I play with, the force that is constantly taken on a nightly basis,” Smart said. “It was a very significant injury last year that I didn’t really have time to rest because of the situation we were in. So I’m constantly playing on it, constantly taking a beating on it, and it really never had time to heal. Scar tissue buildup is going to affect it and just have to continue to do what we’ve been doing.”

Smart said the combination of medical treatment, balance work, and strengthening exercises have allowed him to play without issue for most of this season. He added that if the playoffs were starting, he would be on the court.

“I’m feeling better than I was the last couple of days,” he said. “The ankle got really inflamed and that inflammation makes it hard to move, to put pressure on it. So just continue to do what we’ve been doing. When it gets like that, constant treatment and take the appropriate days to rest and let the swelling go down on its own. So today I’m feeling a lot better, but it’s still giving me problems.”

Brogdon back in

While Smart remained out, another guard, Malcolm Brogdon, returned Friday after missing four games due to right hamstring tightness. Mazzulla said Brogdon’s playing time was expected to be slightly limited. “We were just trying to be smart with me in the long run and making sure I’m 100 percent,” Brogdon said. “Today is the day I feel 100 percent.” … Pelicans star Zion Williamson missed Friday’s game because of a foot contusion.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.