Joe Mazzulla needs to call more timeouts and give Jayson Tatum rest
Mazzulla was officially named the team’s head coach last week following a 42-17 start to the season.
The Celtics’ announcement last week that they were removing the interim tag from Joe Mazzulla’s job description and making him the 19th head coach in franchise history was the right thing to do in every way.
It’s easy to forget now, with the Celtics beginning the post-All-Star-break portion of their schedule with the best record in the league at 42-17, but Mazzulla inherited a situation that could have gone sideways.
In his one season, Ime Udoka proved no-nonsense motivator and defensive mastermind in guiding the Celtics to the NBA Finals. The team’s prime-of-career core — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart — liked him, respected him, and could take it when he lit them up. He was likable in his stoic way, seemingly the right fit.
When Udoka detonated his own career and was suspended for multiple violations of team policies in September, effectively ending his Celtics coaching tenure (a detail that became official with Mazzulla’s promotion), the vagueness of the explanation for what led to his downfall left some players frustrated.
And so close to the season, how would they find a replacement capable of taking them as far as Udoka did, and then hopefully one huge championship-clinching step beyond that?
As it turned out, a coach who wasn’t even in the front row on the bench last season provided the stability the Celtics needed. Mazzulla, who joined Brad Stevens’s staff in ‘19, galvanized the Celtics with his positivity, offensive acumen, and trust in his players’ decision-making.
It’s a tribute to him that his team always seems to have a real chance at winning every night no matter who is in the lineup. He earned this job, and he deserves it.
I must admit, however, that Stevens’s rationale for ditching Mazzulla’s interim tag now — it removes what he called “a cloud of uncertainty” before the postseason — reminded me that a few clouds of uncertainty remain. And we won’t know if the skies are truly clear or not until the Celtics’ season is complete.
Mazzulla has … I don’t know quite what to call them. Beliefs? Tendencies? Wacky ideas? Actually, let’s go with quirky tactical approaches. Mazzulla has two quirky tactical approaches that I fret could get in the Celtics’ way in the postseason, maybe in an uneventful way, and maybe at a tremendous cost.
You know what they are, too, because they probably drive you nuts as well in certain circumstances. He’s not big on calling timeouts. And he’s playing certain players way too many minutes.
Let’s consider the timeouts, of lack thereof, first. Mazzulla prefers to let his players play through rough stretches and situations when the opponent is putting together a run. That’s usually fine. It’s a reiteration of his trust in his players, and their record suggests the decision is often rewarded.
He has acknowledged that he lets them play through messes of their own making for another reason, which he shared on The Sports Hub’s “Zolak & Bertrand” show a couple of weeks ago after the Celtics’ 125-121 overtime win over the Lakers on Jan. 28.
“I don’t think there’s actual real evidence that [calling timeouts during runs] works,” he said, when asked about a prolonged stretch in which the Lakers turned a 20-point deficit into a 13-point lead before falling apart. “I think there’s feel. And I think this is what people are used to seeing and how people have done it along the way. We were down 92-88 [and I called one], we scored to get to 92-90, and they went on another 6-0 run. So what did that timeout do besides get us down more than we were when I called it?”
Maybe he has analytics that support this approach. He probably does. But the reality is that every possession, every point, every opportunity in the postseason must be cherished. Mazzulla must use his timeouts to at least attempt to stop opposing runs when the stakes are highest and they’re facing a nuisance such as the Heat or a genuine contender such as the Bucks.
That he ended the recent overtime loss to the Bucks — a valiant effort by his shorthanded team — with a pair of timeouts in his pocket wasn’t a great sign, though to his credit he admitted afterward that he probably should have used one.
For now, his policy can stand. But it must change in the playoffs. And he should at the least get in the habit of using his timeouts now when his team’s shot-selection starts looking like some sort of bizarre Ricky Davis tribute.
The other detail Mazzulla needs to figure out: How to cut back Tatum’s minutes. Mazzulla had an excellent seat, right there in the second row, when Tatum ran out of gas in the Finals against the Warriors last June. Tatum is on a redemption/revenge tour now, and this has the vibe of a truly special season for him and the team. It’s also admirable how much he wants to play in these days of load management.
Last regular season, Tatum played 2,731 minutes in 76 games, an average of 35.9 per game. This season, in 55 games, he’s already played 2,051 minutes, fourth in the league. His 37.3 average minutes per game is second only to Toronto’s Pascal Siakam.
Tatum works maniacally on his conditioning and strength, and if you’re skeptical, compare a photo of what he looked like as a rookie to what he looks like now. And he’ll be more prepared for a long postseason run now that he’s been through one. But it’s counterproductive to play him for extended lengths, such as the 41 straight minutes he played in that aforementioned Lakers game, during the regular season. His coach needs to get him breathers when he can.
Mazzulla needs to make sure his players are at their best when the games matter the most. And he will have to be, too. The Celtics are built to be champions this year. They are the deepest and most well-rounded team in the league. I really believe Banner 18 will be theirs, provided two things happen: they remain healthy, and their new coach comes through for them at the end of the season just as he did when they needed him at the beginning.
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