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Chad Finn

This Celtics team has the playoff experience. Can Joe Mazzulla hit the right buttons when the moment comes?

The Celtics are 48-22 with 12 games to play in 2023.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Marcus Smart has played in 88 playoff games as a member of your Boston Celtics. That’s as many as 1981 Finals MVP Most Valuable Player Cedric Maxwell and one fewer than Dave Cowens.

Jaylen Brown has competed in 85 playoff games in his seven seasons as a Celtic. That’s one more than that renowned believer in possibilities, Kevin Garnett, played for the franchise.

Jayson Tatum, somehow already in his sixth season in green, has played in 74 playoff games — just six fewer than 1976 Finals MVP Jo Jo White.

Al Horford, the senior Celtic in NBA experience? Fun fact: His playoff debut came in his rookie season of 2007-08 in the first round against the eventual champion Celtics. Horford scored 20 points and collected 10 rebounds for the Hawks in a Game 1 loss to Garnett and friends. Playoff Al showed up even then.


Horford has played in almost two full seasons’ worth of playoff games since then — 146 more after that first one, to be exact, including 69 with the Celtics.

All told, the Celtics’ everyone-is-healthy, ideal starting five — including Robert Williams and yes, Smart starts over Derrick White — has a combined 426 games of NBA postseason experience.

Now, I believe we tend to think of them as a young team, because Brown is 26, Tatum just turned 25, and they’re still working to scale that championship mountain.

But they ain’t that young anymore. They’ve been through some stuff together, most importantly last season’s six-game loss to the Warriors in the Finals.

They’ve been tested, they’ve endured, and they’ve often emerged victorious.

(The Celtics are 5-1 in Game 7s during Smart’s time here. Did you know that? Bet you didn’t know that.)

Marcus Smart (left) is 5-1 in Game 7s, including the Eastern Conference Finals last season.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

It’s that experience that gives me faith that their recent bouts of lethargy will be remedied once they tighten up their focus.


Of course, that doesn’t do much to help us tolerate their unnecessary frustrating tendencies now. They’re 6-5 since the All-Star break, with old bad habits — my-turn-your-turn basketball, playing at a too-casual pace, shaky shot selection — reemerging as a main culprit.

They know better. We know they know better, because they talked about how satisfying it was to play selfless basketball in the season’s first two months, when they were 18-4 through November, featured an offense threatening to break every efficiency record, and were so aesthetically pleasing at times that the more hyperbolic folks among us — hello there — admitted to having occasional ‘86 Celtics flashbacks when this group was at its basketball-sharing best.

It was inevitable that they would cool off and hit a rut or two, but it is a bummer that they’ve regressed into those bad habits. They still enhance their own degree of difficulty, still make things tougher on themselves, and it’s probably going to result in a tougher playoff road than it looked like they would face during those scorching first two months.

Tatum is a wonderful player with generally good intentions, but can we admit that the offense devolves when he goes into walk-it-up mode as the primary ballhandler? Brown — who deserved the final shot rather than Tatum in the loss to the Rockets — often ends up standing around watching like he’s P.J. Tucker or something rather than one of the league’s premier shot creators and pure scorers.


Worse, Smart plays his calmest basketball when he’s the point guard rather than playing off-ball. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves for learning to play with more poise and control, but there’s no doubt that he has fallen into the old habit of playing as if he needs to be the third scorer behind Tatum and Brown rather than as the initiator and clever passer.

I worry that those habits will become more prominent and problematic now that Smart whisperer Damon Stoudamire has taken his calm, seen-it-all demeanor and headed for Georgia Tech, presumably to recruit the next generation of great lefty point guards.

There’s little doubt that these Celtics know how to play the right way, know what they are doing wrong right now, and know how to fix it. I trust them to do so; it feels like the natural next step up that mountain.

But it’s a fortunate thing that they have all of that collective playoff experience, because their coach does not.

We’re just not going to know whether Joe Mazzulla is ready for the moment until the moment has passed. He did an extraordinary job keeping this team unified and focused as the interim coach in the aftermath of the Ime Udoka situation, and he deserved to be promoted to head coach.

But because he’s so limited in experience, and there are just 12 games left in the regular season, there are crucial tactical questions that can only be answered in the playoffs.


With 12 games left until the playoffs, every decision Joe Mazzulla makes will be under increased scrutiny.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Mazzulla is a big believer in math and the value of the 3-point shot, but when the Celtics are cold from long distance, will he adjust to at least get higher-quality 3-pointers?

Will he bury important bench players like Grant Williams and Sam Hauser in the short term, causing potential confidence issues in the long term?

Will he deploy timeouts to at least give his team a mental and physical breather when the opponent is on a run?

Will he dare to sit Smart when White — a connector who should be on the court in the vast majority of crucial situations — is playing better?

Will Malcolm Brogdon, their third-most proficient scorer, get opportunities when the outcome is in the balance . . . again, even if it means sitting Smart against certain matchups?

Mazzulla, as oddly aloof as he can seem in press conferences, is always quick to admit his own mistakes, and he’s surely learned more than we can imagine during his first season as an NBA head coach.

But this role is still new to him. His players? They’ve been through this. And ultimately, it’s up to them whether they finally reach the peak.

Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him @GlobeChadFinn.