Joe Mazzulla may be learning on the fly, but make no mistake: He is learning


Celtics stay alive with another win in Game 5!

After Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, pretty much everyone had Joe Mazzulla already fired. It seemed obvious that the Celtics’ first-year head coach was in over his head, unable to find any answers as Miami’s Erik Spoelstra coached circles around him.

But then a funny thing happened. Mazzulla found some answers. He has the Celtics playing better at both ends of the floor, with more ball movement leading to more open three-pointers and fewer turnovers on offense, and more aggressiveness and physicality leading to fewer open threes and more turnovers on defense.

Now it’s the Celtics with momentum and the Heat under pressure, with Boston halfway to a historic comeback after Thursday’s 110-97 win in Game 5 at TD Garden.

Does Mazzulla deserve all the credit? No, of course not. Just like he didn’t deserve all the blame when they were down 0-3. As Marcus Smart has reminded us on multiple occasions, any coach can only do so much. The players played poorly in Games 1-3. They’ve played a lot better, with a much better effort, in Games 4 and 5. That’s a change they had to make themselves. Mazzulla couldn’t make them care more.

That said, there have been clear signs of growth for Mazzulla. He may be learning on the fly, and that might not be ideal for a team with championship aspirations, but make no mistake: He is learning.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies that better than his improvement in the area where he has probably been criticized the most: Timeouts.

All year long, including in these playoffs, Mazzulla has come under fire for being too slow to call timeouts when the opponent goes on a run. Letting the Heat completely erase a nine-point lead before calling one in the third quarter of Game 1 while Spoelstra called timeouts at the slightest signs of trouble was frustrating to watch.

The last two games, however, Mazzulla has exhibited a much better feel for the game and has been more like Spoelstra (and most coaches) when it comes to timeouts, using them aggressively to try to stop any Miami momentum before it even got going.

Take Game 5 for example. Early in the third quarter, the Celtics’ 19-point lead shrunk to 16. Nothing crazy, but they had gotten a little sloppy with a couple misses, a Smart turnover, and a couple fast-break baskets for Miami. Timeout. No letting guys play through it. No waiting for the lead to get down to 12 or 10 or single digits. Nip in the bud right away and reset.

Derrick White hits a three out of the timeout, Jaylen Brown gets a steal that leads to a Jayson Tatum basket, and just like that the C’s are back in full control with a 21-point lead.

In the final minute of the third, a Caleb Martin three followed by a Payton Pritchard turnover that led to a Bam Adebayo dunk gave the Heat a quick 5-0 run to cut the lead to 18. Mazzulla could’ve just waited for the end of the quarter to address the team, but he didn’t and instead called timeout with 32 seconds left, subbing Pritchard out in the process. Tatum sets up a Robert Williams dunk out of the timeout. Run over.

The Celtics extended their lead to 24 – their largest lead of the game – early in the fourth, but then a quick 6-0 Miami run got it back to 18 with 8:24 remaining. The C’s weren’t exactly in danger of blowing the game at that point, but Mazzulla wasn’t about to wait for it to get to that point like he had in the past. He called a timeout right then and there just to make sure. The Celtics locked in defensively once again and the outcome was never in doubt.

Off the court, Mazzulla can often sound robotic and defensive during his press conferences. That, too, has changed in recent days. Mazzulla put all the blame on himself after Game 3, no longer defaulting to terse, sometimes patronizing answers.

Then, before Thursday’s Game 5, Mazzulla got as human as human gets, sharing an emotional story about three terminal cancer patients he recently met while explaining how he’s been able to keep things in perspective.

“I met three girls under the age of 21 with terminal cancer. I thought I was helping them by talking to them, and they were helping me,” Mazzulla said. “So having an understanding about what life is really all about, and watching a girl dying and smiling and enjoying her life, that’s what it’s really all about, and having that faith and understanding.”

The Celtics still have an uphill battle. They’re still down 3-2 in the series. It’s still possible that Mazzulla and the team’s adjustments came just a little too late. It’s still possible that he’ll lose his job if the C’s go down to Miami and get their doors blown off Saturday night.

But maybe, just maybe, Mazzulla is learning just in the nick of time.

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