PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics led almost from wire to wire and beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 114-102, in Game 3 of their conference semifinal Friday at the Wells Fargo Center. Boston leads the series, 2-1, and has a great shot to get back to the Finals and maybe win the franchise’s 18th banner.
“I think we managed the game well,” coach Joe Mazzulla said after the win. " … It’s the playoffs. We’re playing against a great team … every possession is a round. Our only expectation is to be ahead at the end of the game.”
Can the super-serious Celtics rookie coach Joe Mazzulla now relax?
Mazzulla is tightly wound. He is cut in the mold of Ralph Nader, Colonel Nathan Jessup, and … dare we say … Bill Belichick? Let’s just say he’s unlikely to get a call if NESN needs someone to replace Charlie Moore, the Mad Fisherman.
Boston’s 34-year-old coach experienced something of a pleasure cruise in his first year on the bench. Green Teamers rooted for him to succeed and there were no brush fires as the Celtics compiled the NBA’s second-best record. Joey M finished third in voting for NBA coach of the year.
The playoffs have been a tougher test. Mazzulla’s Celtics needed six games to eliminate the .500 Hawks, then collapsed at the end of Game 1 against the Sixers at the Garden last week.
Matched up against Atlanta’s Quin Snyder, and now Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers, Mazzulla has seen (and heard) the dark side. He’s drawn heat on talk shows, social media, and in old-timey newspapers. He’s been taken to task for not calling timeouts, not making adjustments, and poor late-game inbounds plays after timeouts.
He’s got the better talent in this series and took responsibility for Boston’s Game 1 loss, saying, “I have to be better at play calling, getting us into our spacing quicker. So it’s a little bit on me … I didn’t put them in position to win the game. So be better, and we will be better.”
The public introspection didn’t save him from being roundly roasted after the late-game meltdown. Clearly, Mazzulla heard the noise. After the Celtics thrashed Philly by 34 points in Game 2, Mazzulla ended his postgame presser with, “What, no one wants to ask about the adjustments we made from Game 1 to Game 2?”
It was a defensive, combative, weird walkoff.
The next day, Mazzulla submitted to a Zoom press conference, and mumbled, “I am the worst coach ever,’’ as he left the podium.
Before Game 3, he explained that he was mad at himself Thursday when he failed to congratulate Marcus Smart for winning the NBA’s Hustle Award. Mazzulla cares what his players think of him.
Everybody else? Maybe not so much.
“Some coaches court favor with the media and want allies,” said longtime Celtics player and broadcaster Cedric Maxwell. “Joe does not give a [bleep] what you think of him. He is not going to try to be your friend. And I love that about him.”
Rivers, who won a championship as boss of the Celtics in 2008, has been an NBA head coach for 24 seasons. He went 41-41 in his first season as head coach in Orlando and did not make the playoffs, then lost a first-round series to the Bucks in his second season. I asked him what was it like to be criticized in his first playoff series.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been criticized,” Rivers joked. “But, listen, we were an eighth seed [in 2001]. So we were the underdog. We were just fighting to stay alive. So that’s a big difference [from what Mazzulla is experiencing]. You go through it all year and then you go through it times 10 in the playoffs. By the time you get to the playoffs, I’d say most guys are ready for it. That’s what you have to do to coach.”
Do you try not to listen?
“You hear everything,” he said. “But you know you put in the preparation, all the work. And you have a lot of coaches. You’ve done what you need to do, so you don’t worry about it much. You worry about what you have to worry about with the players.
“Joe has a lot more pressure than I had in my first year in the playoffs. He’s taken a team that went to the Finals last year. He’s doing a fantastic job. But like me and all coaches, we’re going to be the guy that gets looked at when anything goes wrong. Joe has never experienced that, but that’s just the way it is. But one thing I know about Joe, he knew that when he signed on. I guarantee it.”
Mazzulla was in good spirits before Game 3, even waving off a Celtic PR person who’d declared that the press session was over. Mazzulla was asked to reflect about his meteoric rise from anonymity to a possible spot in the NBA Finals.
“I’m here because of a lot of other people, what they did, what they accomplished and the sacrifice they made,” he said, “and because of what the Celtics have done for me.”
Then he smiled.