LOS ANGELES — Celtics players knew not to look back at the bench when the Lakers made their game-changing run late in the third quarter and early in the fourth on Tuesday night. They knew full well their coach was not going to offer any consolation or bailouts.
The players would have to figure out on their own how to stop being incompetent offensively and provide some kind of resistance defensively.
After leading by 14 points with 2:22 left in the third quarter, the Celtics scored 5 points over the next 10:41.
Joe Mazzulla’s most noticeable characteristic in his first NBA head coaching job is his disdain for timeouts. He refuses to stop momentum, give his players a break, and reset the game plan when the energy is shifting, even if that means the runs become overwhelming.
So he stood emotionless as the Celtics unraveled. He called one timeout during the Lakers’ surge, after Los Angeles went on an 18-0 run to take a 92-88 lead with 8:19 left in the fourth quarter. The Celtics actually led this game, 81-61.
That would be Mazzulla’s final timeout of the night. He would allow his team to maneuver its way out of this adversity with its own acumen, and it eventually worked. After yielding a 45-12 run to trail by 13 with 4:25 left, the Celtics, without using a timeout, rallied to tie in regulation and then win, 122-118, in overtime.
Mazzulla’s timeout allergy continues, and he won’t budge on that philosophy. It worked Tuesday. The Celtics resurrected themselves. With 44 points, Jayson Tatum was the best player on the floor despite the presence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Jaylen Brown made big shots. Marcus Smart sparked the rally with his defense and Grant Williams swished a critical corner 3-pointer in overtime.
Mazzulla said he will continue to challenge his team to sink or swim, to navigate through game situations without intervening, even though intervention may be the most rational move.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for our guys to grow, and as long as we remain poised, we’re going to be in that situation,” Mazzulla said. “We have to just learn how to get through it . . . most of the time in those situations, it’s self-inflicted and if we can just clean up those situations and execute, we’ll be able to handle being down 5 with 48 seconds left and know what exactly we’re trying to do.”
In other words, testing his team’s mettle in December will increase its chances of winning in June. Mazzulla, in his own bizarre and bullheaded way, is building his team’s character for when the games really count.
The Celtics looked defeated after a stretch where James swished a 3-pointer and slammed off a Celtics defensive breakdown, and then a Brown turnover led to a Russell Westbrook fast-break dunk.
Los Angeles led, 106-93, and Crypto.com Arena was jumping — a fan base eager to see its team play quality basketball finally had reason to rise from the seats. The Celtics looked done. “Celtics suck!” chants rained from the rafters.
Then, without the help of a rah-rah speech from Mazzulla, the Celtics resurrected themselves. Williams hit a three. Smart stole a lazy James inbounds pass and scored a layup. Tatum scored 5 consecutive points, and then Smart scored 5 more.
Davis then missed two free throws with 28.2 seconds left and the Lakers up 2, creating a chance for the Celtics to complete their comeback. Tatum’s spinning fadeaway over the outstretched James tied the score with 17.8 seconds left.
In overtime, the Celtics scored 12 consecutive points to take command, earning their most emotional win of the season.
“In moments, a timeout could help us get settled a little bit, get our composure back, because it seems when that momentum gets building up, people get tense, get a little antsy with the ball,” Brown said. “But Joe trusts us with the experience that we have. We’ve been in big moments. We’ve seen a lot of different things, so get ourselves composed while we’re on the floor, get ourselves together and have the same effect a timeout would. That’s something we’re continuing to develop.”
Mazzulla possesses supreme confidence in himself and his approach despite being a first-year NBA head coach thrown into this position. If the Celtics had imploded and blown a 20-point lead and lost this game to a Lakers team with a losing record, Mazzulla would have felt the brunt of the criticism, knowing he could have done more to stem the Lakers’ surge.
Los Angeles, despite its deficiencies, still has three Hall of Fame-caliber players on the floor who are capable of making plays. The Lakers found that rhythm in the third and fourth quarters but then had nothing left after, allowing the Celtics to rally and then pull away.
“There’s certain lessons we can learn throughout games like that and Joe tells us all the time he’s not going to save us,” Tatum said. “Especially in the course of the game where we’re not playing the way we should be. A lot of times he tells us to figure it out and he challenges us, and he did that tonight.”
Tatum and Brown each alluded to a pregame meeting where Mazzulla pointedly told them they needed to play better to escape the team’s doldrums. They received the message, combining for 69 points, 24 rebounds, and 11 assists.
They understand Joe Mazzulla is not Ime Udoka or any other coach they’ve had before. His plan is to demand from them something that makes them uncomfortable. Instead of waiting for relief, generate ways to win even when you are not at your best.
The Celtics were at their best for about 2½ quarters Tuesday. The rest of the night was spent trying to overcome their flaws, with little intervention from their coach.
“It’s more of a surprise if he does call a timeout,” Tatum said. “We’re used to it. Joe wants us to figure it out, and I think in the long run that’s going to help us once we get in those moments later in the season, the playoffs.”
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.