In this bizarro world that is the NBA In-Season Tournament, where running up the score is encouraged and hacking bad foul shooters to boost 28-point leads is part of the winning strategy, Joe Mazzulla dived deep into the challenge of his team needing to beat the Bulls by 23 points Tuesday to advance to the quarterfinals.
Mazzulla downplayed this tournament for weeks. He said he didn’t care when the Magic scored 7 points in the final 62 seconds Friday to pad their point differential. He defiantly said before Tuesday’s game that it meant nothing more than a late-November regular-season game, regardless of how many qualifying scenarios NBA Communications posted the past few days for the Celtics to reach the final eight.
Yet, when the Celtics entered the fourth quarter with a 29-point lead at TD Garden, Apathetic Joe turned into Compulsive Joe, fascinated by having to play meaningful basketball despite a substantial lead and the game already decided.
What the In-Season Tournament has done, intentionally or not, is force us basketball junkies, those who have learned the game from our fathers and mothers, grandfathers and uncles, to change how we believe the game should be played.
The Celtics’ 124-97 win, which thrust them into a quarterfinals matchup with the Pacers, was uncomfortable to watch at times. The Celtics had to win by at least 23 and then hope the Nets beat the Raptors by at least 8 points fewer than the Celtics’ margin over the Bulls.
Mazzulla spent the final period feverishly coaching his team to avoid losing the fourth by 7 or more points. He left his starters in until the final minutes. He intentionally fouled poor free throw shooter Andre Drummond to reduce the Bulls’ chances of scoring 2 points on possessions. He turned into a mad scientist because what appeared to be a slim possibility of advancing prior to opening tip became real once the Celtics dominated the first three periods.
“Once it got to [the fourth quarter[, and their possessions were 0.0 points per possession because they missed two free throws, that stuff gets me excited,” Mazzulla said. “Lower points per possession on defense, the process toward winning, finding small ways to try and win, those things are cool.
“It’s not that I don’t think the In-Season Tournament is fun or it’s important but it’s a process. You go back to the Orlando game, like are we going rebound because it’s an In-Season Tournament game? I don’t want our guys to have that type of mind-set or type of environment.”
So that’s why he downplayed the tournament the past few weeks, but advancing meant bruising the Bulls’ feelings. Mazzulla explained to Chicago coach Billy Donovan during the fourth quarter that his team needed to win the game by at least 23 points to advance.
Mazzulla tried meeting with Drummond after the game, and Donovan walked into the Bulls locker room to explain to Drummond why he was being intentionally fouled in a 32-point game. Drummond missed 5 of 6 free throw attempts.
He appeared to understand Donovan’s words, but that doesn’t mean the process wasn’t awkward and troublesome for even the Celtics players. They’re taught never to embarrass their opponent, to win with dignity. And yet, this tournament encourages teams to go Steve Spurrier on inferior opponents.
The Celtics were the victim Friday when the Magic left their starters in to pad the score. They were the perpetrators Tuesday and didn’t like that feeling.
“Yeah, running up the score,” Celtics guard Jrue Holiday said when asked what he didn’t like about this qualifying. “It just feels weird, like you’re kind of disrespecting the game and your opponent. Like I said, it feels weird, but I understand it.”
The Celtics walked away feeling a little grimy. They did celebrate advancing in the locker room, but in hindsight, they aren’t accustomed to playing the game that way.
Jaylen Brown, part of the Players Association Executive Committee, has said the players mainly agreed to the tournament because they were convinced it would boost fan interest and increase revenues. He’s made it clear just because the players approved the idea doesn’t mean they’re crazy about it, especially when it requires potentially embarrassing their brethren. That’s something they don’t want to get accustomed to, regardless of the $500,000 prize for members of the winning team.
“Personally I don’t really have a comment on [how the league encourages running up the score],” Brown said. “I think the agenda has been to try to increase competition, to increase revenue, to make it more exciting during this type of year. I don’t have a comment but I will say honestly, it’s a line between increasing excitement, revenue, notoriety, whatever and compromising the ethics of the game. You know? This is the first [time] we’ve kind of seen this but I’m sure there will be a lot of conversations going around that get to some decision. That’s all I’ll say about it.”
There has to be a better way than having to humiliate opponents to reach the next round of this tournament. The NBA has a lot of smart people in their offices, and they’ll certainly devise a more honorable way of qualifying because the tournament has become a really brilliant idea.