NEW ORLEANS — As the Celtics embark on this journey with the express purpose of winning the NBA championship, they are finding more ways to secure victories, they are quickly adapting to the style of Joe Mazzulla and in turn, Mazzulla is putting faith in his players to respond to in-game adversity.
On several occasions Friday at Smoothie King Center, Mazzulla watched his team build a sizable lead with brilliant 3-point shooting and then lose that lead with quick Pelican flurries. And each time, although sometimes uncomfortably, the Celtics worked their way out of those ruts.
Boston won for the ninth consecutive time, beating New Orleans, 117-109, a game the Celtics led for the final 45 minutes, 5 seconds but never really took control of. But this is generally how games against quality teams are going to transpire.
Quality teams make runs, they play hard, they have star players who can make contested shots. So even for the Celtics, who are the NBA’s best team one month into the season, nights are generally not going to be easy, even when they splash threes.
They built their lead Friday by knocking down 14 first-half 3-pointers; their crisp ball movement allowed their variety of plus shooters to get open shots, and players such as Derrick White and Al Horford burned the Pelicans defense focused on containing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
But on two occasions, Mazzulla allowed his team to wiggle their way out of jams. The Pelicans made a 15-2 push midway through the second period and Mazzulla waited until CJ McCollum hit a 3-pointer to slice the deficit to 5 to call a timeout. The Celtics responded with the next 7 points.
Late in the third quarter, White extended the Celtics’ lead to 19 with a 3-pointer with three minutes left. The Pelicans then came back with a 10-2 run to end the period, sparked by consecutive turnovers from Jaylen Brown. Mazzulla allowed the run to develop, refusing to stem the tide with a timeout.
And finally, the Pelicans went on a 7-0 run in a 1 minute, 40 second stretch of the fourth quarter and still, Mazzulla kept his hands in his pockets. The Celtics responded with a 7-2 run to restore some order.
“I absolutely love it,” was Mazzulla’s response when asked if he enjoyed watching his team maneuver their ways out of opposing runs. “I think you have to build an awareness for your team of what’s going on. And sometimes I like the fact that we have to execute through a run instead of calling a timeout.
“In order for us to be a great team, we have to handle those situations, we have to build an awareness and know how to execute. And quite honestly, I’ve watched a lot of timeouts where you call it and nothing good happens after the timeout.”
This is a personal preference for Mazzulla. He said it wasn’t a byproduct of what Ime Udoka didn’t do last season. He is attempting to build a resiliency in his team early, improve the ability to make plays under pressure, especially on the road. The New Orleans crowd was raucous, anticipating the home team would make a couple of more plays to even the game. The Pelicans never did.
White played for a coach in San Antonio in Gregg Popovich who would call timeouts after a 2-0 opposing run. He stopped the action the moment the momentum changed. This situation is different. Players aren’t looking to Mazzulla for relief. They have to save themselves.
“Pop probably called the fastest timeouts in the league,” White said. “I think a lot of it [with Mazzulla] is trust and I think he trusts us a lot to withstand those runs and make the right play. There’s a lot of trust both ways and you have to go out there and execute.”
Players are beyond the point where they’re looking to the sidelines, waiting for Mazzulla to stop the opposing surge. They are learning to trust themselves, a process that is making progress.
It may not be as extreme as Miyagi teaching Daniel how to wax cars or scrub floors, but the point is the same. Surviving runs now will train the Celtics never to relinquish their poise later.
“I think so at times it’s good,” Brown said of Mazzulla’s style. “It challenges us not only for the situation at hand but also it challenges us to be better down the line. I think that we’ve been in the NBA long enough to know how to get to our spots and how to correct some of our mistakes. We’ve got a poised team and that’s a lot of trust from our head coach that he instills in us to figure it out.
“To be honest, that’s what you want, you want that relationship with your head coach that he trusts you out there, that you’ll figure it out and for the most part we have this year. We’ve just got to keep it up and continue to set our bar at a higher standard.”
Mazzulla’s version of tough love has been effective and the players continue to mention the word “trust” in their relationship with him. It’s apparent the Celtics are buying into their new head coach and the result is the league’s best record and the ability to win even when they are shorthanded.