Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was unsure how he would approach his team’s final group-play game of the In-Season Tournament against the Bulls on Tuesday, because he simply did not know what path his team would take en route to the end.
“I took in all the information, and I didn’t handle it emotionally,” Mazzulla said after the 124-97 win that sent Boston to the quarterfinals, where it will face the Pacers. “I sat and stored it in whatever part of our brain that stores information, and I waited to see if I was going to need it or not.”
There were plenty of permutations that would allow the Celtics to advance, but almost all of them involved steamrolling the Bulls. And that ignited questions about how aggressively Boston would pursue a pummeling, as it toed the line between competing for a newly created championship and disrespecting an opponent.
But as the night unfolded it became clear the Celtics would have to choose their level of late-game aggression. Their clearest path to the next round was to win by at least 23 points, but that avenue would be shut down by a Raptors win over the Nets. The others required Boston to win by even more.
Mazzulla had told one of his assistants to keep tabs on the Brooklyn game and alert him only if it became relevant. That second-half score was also flashed on the TD Garden video board, and guard Jrue Holiday said some of the players noticed. Brooklyn was winning, and it was close.
The Celtics were certainly doing their part, too, as they stretched their third-quarter lead to as many as 32 points.
“So when we got to that point, I felt like it was time to execute and put ourselves in position to advance into the tournament,” Mazzulla said.
Mazzulla asked his players if they were ready to go for the win, and they said yes. Of course, the win was well in hand. The insinuation was whether they were ready to continue their demolition.
With 7 minutes, 34 seconds left and Boston leading by 28, Mazzulla put three of his starters back in, a rare and even risky choice. In just over a minute, the lead swelled to 35, and the stars remained on the floor.
This stretch became even more uncomfortable when Mazzulla twice instructed his players to foul Bulls big man Andre Drummond, a notoriously poor free-throw shooter. Drummond missed all four of his attempts, but this tactic in this spot agitated Bulls coach Billy Donovan.
“Andre is a veteran guy,” Donovan said, “and I told [Mazzulla], ‘What are we doing here?’”
In an unusual sight, after Donovan made his frustrations known, Mazzulla walked toward Chicago’s bench and explained his thought process. He said later that Donovan did not realize that the Celtics might need to win by more than 23 in order to secure a wild-card entry.
Mazzulla did not feel good about it, but he pushed forward anyway and apologized to Donovan and Drummond after the game.
“But it gave us the best chance, considering the circumstances we were in,” Mazzulla said.
There were some limits to the destruction, though. When Mazzulla saw Jaylen Brown dive for a loose ball late in the fourth, he started to weigh the potential risks involved more seriously. He removed his starters with about two minutes left, and the backups did enough to maintain a suitable cushion.
Although Mazzulla thoughtfully and fully explained his thought process after the game, some of his players sounded more conflicted about the awkward fourth-quarter pile-on.
Holiday said he did not agree with the decision to reenter the game midway through the fourth quarter, but he understood why the Celtics chose that route. His bigger issue was with the rules that encourage teams to do this.
“It just feels weird,” he said, “kind of like you’re disrespecting the game and your opponent.”
Brown agreed with that sentiment.
“It’s tough, because that’s just not how the game is supposed to be played,” he said. “One, you’ve got to respect your opponents and two, it’s just a weird set up. We understand the rules, but if I was on the other team, I would be upset as well when we were doing the hack-a-Drummond in the middle of the fourth quarter. But our coaching staff made the decision and we stick with it.”
Donovan, for his part, said he understood that the Celtics were simply trying to follow the scoring system that the league installed, and do what they could to advance in this tournament that is new for everyone.
“There’s no hard feelings,” he said.
If the Raptors had toppled the Nets, the Celtics would have been eliminated from the tournament because they would have lost a head-to-head tiebreaker against the Magic. But Boston ultimately won the three-team tiebreak thanks to a plus-27 point differential, just ahead of Orlando (plus-22) and Brooklyn (plus-20). The Celtics would not have done enough to secure the wild card, which went to the Knicks.
The Knicks and Bucks will meet in the other conference quarterfinal, with the winners advancing to next Thursday’s semifinals in Las Vegas.
Brown had 30 points and 8 rebounds to lead the Celtics Tuesday, and Jayson Tatum added 21 points. Boston shot 52.2 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from the 3-point line. DeMar DeRozan and Coby White had 19 points apiece for the Bulls