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Time for Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla to turn to Jaylen Brown and others late when Jayson Tatum struggles

Joe Mazzulla's Celtics are 7-6 since the NBA All-Star break and have dropped to third in the Eastern Conference behind the Bucks and 76ers.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

SACRAMENTO — Grant Williams tried making a play. He wanted to end the Celtics’ porous habit of blowing early large leads, and attacked the rim with his team down 1 in the final five seconds Saturday against the Utah Jazz.

Seven-footer Walker Kessler met Williams at the rim and gobbled up what looked like a shot attempt. The ball ricocheted off bodies and rolled down the Vivint Arena floor. Celtics lose again.

Coach Joe Mazzulla said the final play was designed as a dribble-handoff to Jayson Tatum, who actually languished near the midcourt line and never got involved. Malcolm Brogdon inbounded the ball and just stood there. Jaylen Brown slipped. Sam Hauser got open for a brief moment but Williams had little time to decide.


Brown declined to speak to reporters after the game. Tatum said he wasn’t annoyed or angry that Williams took the last shot. Brogdon appeared irritated but said, “Of course we want JB or JT to take the shot but that’s how the game finished up.”

In their first year together, Mazzulla and Tatum are still working things through.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

It was the second time on this road trip Mazzulla designed the final play for an ice-cold Tatum while Brown had proven more effective offensively. On Monday in Houston against the Rockets, the Celtics trailed by 2 in the final seconds when Tatum took an inbounds pass and raced to the rim, before his momentum prevented him from getting a clean look and he missed the tying layup.

In Houston, Tatum had not scored in the fourth quarter, missing his only two shot attempts. He was 8 for 22 for the game. Brown had already scored a game-high 43 points, 17 of those in the fourth quarter. Yet, Mazzulla opted for Tatum.

On Saturday, Brown scored 25 points, 10 in the second half while Tatum did not score over the last two periods. Tatum scored all 15 of his points in the second period as Utah coach Will Hardy instituted a trapping defense that forced him to pass. If Tatum had scored the winning bucket against Utah, it would have been his first basket since late in the second.


Tatum fully realizes he’s in a shooting slump and he also understands Brown is one of the league’s rising scorers. He was asked whether he would accept Mazzulla going to other options for late-game buckets, especially on nights when he is struggling.

“I mean yeah,” Tatum said when asked if he approved of others taking late-game pivotal shots. “I ain’t got no ego or nothing like that. I’m just trying to win. And Joe can draw up a play for me but there’s other options. And they were kind of denying me the ball and the ball’s in Grant’s hands and he just had the option to go DHO [dribble-handoff] to somebody else or attack the basket.

“We have a baseline of what we’re trying to do. But it’s all about reaction. I don’t have an ego or anything. I wasn’t mad that Grant took that shot and didn’t have it to me. It’s basketball. I want guys to play with instincts, just read the game.”

Mazzulla said after the game he wanted no one besides Tatum to take the 3-pointer he attempted in the Celtics’ second-to-last possession. Tatum sprinted for the inbounds pass with the Celtics down 1 and launched a 29-footer that Ochai Agbaji contested. The shot bounced off the back of the rim.


According to NBA Stats, Tatum is 5 for 25 this season on running pull-up jump shots and he’s shooting 34.4 percent on shots from 25 to 29 feet. He is also shooting 29.2 percent from the 3-point line and 42.3 percent overall since the All-Star Break.

While Mazzulla has maintained his high regard and respect for Tatum, it would be wise to consider other options for final-minute shots, especially since opposing teams are geared to stop him.

Should Mazzulla be leaning on Brown more often in big moments?Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Mazzulla has struggled with coaching decisions of late. Derrick White, who helps spread the floor and is another quality shooter, did not play in the fourth quarter Saturday. And Mazzulla still hasn’t found a remedy to the defensive rebounding woes and the inability to stop players on dribble penetration.

Utah’s Talen Horton-Tucker is a career 27.9 percent 3-point shooter whose primary way of scoring is bulldozing his way to the rim, yet the Celtics couldn’t stop him from getting to his desired spots in the second half, including the eventual winning basket.

While there appeared to be confusion on that final play, Williams did attempt to get to the free throw line by creating contact but just faltered. There were only five seconds left on the clock, which limited his options. But he shouldn’t take the blame for the loss.

Mazzulla has to be more creative in how to get his best players to flourish during winning time. The Celtics are becoming far too predictable down the stretch. Opposing coaches know the Celtics are determined to get the ball to Tatum, even if it’s been more than an hour since he scored his last bucket.


Brown is capable of making those winning plays, too. And incorporating Brown into late-game actions would make the Celtics a more versatile and less predictable team. The chances of the Celtics coming up with a game-winning shot with five seconds left against three 7-footers with Tatum standing at the midcourt line and Brown behind the 3-point line were less than a perfect NCAA Tournament bracket.

Mazzulla and his staff need to reconsider their approach to late-game situations and capitalize on their wealth of talent, especially Brown.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.