MIAMI (AP) — Joe Mazzulla’s roller coaster season is at an all-time low. And with the Boston Celtics now on the brink of elimination, the freshman coach blames himself.
The Celtics are in the kind of trouble no team in NBA history has escaped, trailing Miami 3-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals afterheat 128-102Sunday night, it might not have been as close as the score would suggest.
“I think the most important thing is just to stick together, and then I have to be better,” said Mazzulla, the NBA’s youngest coach at 34. “I have to put them in better positions. I have to get them ready to play. I have to have the game plan ready for us to be physical and performable, and it’s important that we stick together.
It was a disaster of a series for the Celtics. They let the Heat shoot 52% from the field, 48% from 3-pointers – against a 29% effort from deep by the Celtics – and the dam could have broken in Game 3. After Games 1 and 2 were decided late in Boston, with the Heat finding a way both times, this one was never in doubt.
“I just didn’t have them ready to play,” Mazzulla said.
That’s quite an indictment, especially after how the past eight months or so have unfolded for Mazzulla. He wasn’t supposed to coach the Celtics this season, getting the caretaker job out of necessity once Ime Udoka was suspended. The regular season was one success after another; the Celtics retired the interim tag just after the midpoint of the season, he coached in the All-Star Game and finished third in the Coach of the Year voting.
But this series made all those good times seem long forgotten. He was criticized for not using a timeout in the third quarter of Game 1 when Miami scored 46 points to completely turn this contest around. He also took heat for not being feisty enough, although the players said the problems shouldn’t all lie with the coach.
“I think it’s a team effort,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said.
Celtics center Al Horford also had Mazzulla’s back, insisting there was more than enough blame for everyone at the moment.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to each player,” Horford said. “We know what we have to do. We knew the magnitude of this game. As a player, I take my responsibilities because we didn’t have what it took. It is what it is.
The expression in sports parlance is “losing the locker room”. For a coach, this is often extremely overwhelming – and means players are unmotivated, unprepared or simply not listening anymore.
Whether or not that happened is unclear and really doesn’t matter. In a city that saw the Red Sox make history after losing 3-0 in the AL Championship Series to the New York Yankees in 2004, the Celtics now need the same miracle.
“I have to be better, understand what this team needs to make sure they’re connected, they’re physical and they’re together by the time we hit the floor,” Mazzulla said.
Can this happen?
“I’m not sure,” Mazzulla said.
He has until Tuesday night to find out.