How Joe Mazzulla’s unexpected timeout extended Celtics’ playoff run

Forsberg: How Mazzulla’s unexpected timeout extended Celtics’ season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

MIAMI — Grant Williams couldn’t recall Joe Mazzulla’s third-quarter, mid-possession timeout in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Celtics’ Game 4 triumph over the Miami Heat, which left everyone else within earshot incredulous.

In a season in which Mazzulla’s timeout usage — or lack thereof — was a constant storyline, the coach calling timeout to salvage a crumbling possession felt like a seminal moment. And, depending on how the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals play out following Boston’s second-half blitz to stave off elimination on Wednesday night, it might just be.

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Here’s how it unfolded: The Celtics were down nine early in the third frame after a Jimmy Butler missed layup maddeningly turned into a Max Strus third-chance 3-pointer. The sequence felt like a microcosm of a series in which even Boston’s best defensive efforts were spoiled by Miami’s hot shooting.

But a pair of Jayson Tatum 3-pointers, just 23 seconds apart, breathed new life into the Celtics. Boston had a chance to tie when Jaylen Brown fumbled his dribble in the corner opposite the Boston bench and was immediately trapped by Butler and Kevin Love.

Brown probably would have escaped but Mazzulla wasn’t leaving anything to chance on this night. He screamed at crew chief Scott Foster in front of him for a timeout. Even his players were temporarily frozen in the moment, wondering why there had been a stoppage.

Mazzulla then grabbed his whiteboard and the Celtics produced a game-tying 3 when Al Horford made the extra pass to create a triple for a wide open Derrick White in the corner. Boston’s run eventually snowballed to an 18-0 burst. Isn’t that fitting in a season of “Unfin18hed Business” and the quest for Banner 18?

You can make the case that such a timeout shouldn’t feel like a moment. But it did. Mazzulla, whose preference to let his players trudge through trouble spots has bitten the team repeatedly, stepped outside his comfort zone after 103 games.

Mazzulla spent the 48 hours leading up to Game 4 in a blistering spotlight. After taking blame for Boston’s inexcusable dud in Game 3, talking heads spent two days pondering his coaching merits and whether the Celtics might have to dismiss the 34-year-old after the season because they couldn’t afford for him to learn on the fly on a team with immediate championship aspirations.

To be clear, Mazzulla deserves his fair share of criticism for some of Boston’s troubles this season. Boil it down and the job of a coach is to put their team in the best position to succeed. It was fair to question whether Mazzulla had consistently done that this season, including during parts of Boston’s playoff run.

But in a do-or-die situation, Mazzulla pitched pretty close to a perfect game.

It started in the aftermath of Game 3 when Mazzulla went to the podium and took blame for Boston’s pathetic effort. His players would later suggest the coach didn’t need to fall on that sword but, in doing so, Mazzulla eased the burden on his players and took the brunt of outside anger.

Mazzulla’s only plea in the aftermath of the Game 3 debacle was for his team to stay together. For Monday’s off day, Boston players and staff gathered for a team outing to Topgolf in Miami Garden and a dinner after. Brought together, Boston players had no choice but to address the 3-0 hole they had dug themselves. And the Celtics bubbled with an undeniable energy by the time the team gathered for shootaround on Tuesday morning.

Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown went to the playbook of the 2004 Red Sox while uttering the, “Don’t let us get one,” line made famous by Kevin Millar before the local nine rallied out of a 3-0 hole against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series. How fitting that Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were courtside in Miami.

It wasn’t just that one third-quarter timeout that highlighted Mazzulla’s steadying efforts in Game 4. The Heat trimmed Boston’s lead to five early in the fourth frame while Tatum rested (maybe Mazzulla’s only real misstep on the night). Once again, Mazzulla utilized a timeout to steady his squad.

Tatum, reinserted during that stoppage with 9:41 to play, hit a 19-foot fadeaway to bust the zone that had flummoxed Boston to start the frame and the Celtics quickly pushed their lead back to double figures.

“Tonight was the little things,” said Smart. “We trusted in each other, we believed in each other, continuously. Even when we were down, we continuously believed in each other, and that’s what we’ve got to continue to do. No matter what we’ve got to continue to play the right way, continue to believe in each other, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Mazzulla has to walk a tight rope. By nature, he wants his team to be able to navigate high-pressure moments without his interference. He suggested throughout the season that having to endure those kinds of situations would make Boston better when the games mattered most.

And, yet, if this core has one consistent flaw over multiple seasons, it’s a tendency to lose their minds in moments of adversity. Boston kicked away Game 1 with late turnovers then watched its offense crumble as Jimmy Butler dominated the finish line of Game 2.

Even if it sometimes flies in the face of what he might prefer, Mazzulla has to be the adult in the room, even on a team where one of his starters is three years older than him. Mazzulla’s willingness to step outside that comfort zone in Game 4 and trust his ability to draw up momentum plays showed tremendous growth, and maybe saved Boston’s season.

Even if he’d never take credit for it.

“I think anytime you’re in a do-or-die situation it forces you to build an awareness and perspective,” said Mazzulla. “It’s always been there, and I think just the perspective of understanding that, just a week ago, we had it, and so it’s just fragile during these times. So, we just had to remind each other of that, and I thought the guys were pretty well connected.”

What did Mazzulla tell his team during that mid-possession timeout in the third quarter?

“I just told them we can’t start the quarter off not getting a 50/50 ball and just keep your poise and execution, and I thought the guys had a great awareness, too, intentionality to what we were running,” said Mazzulla. “Spacing was good, execution was good.”

The coach was good, too. Mazzulla got tossed into a tough spot with impossibly high expectations when he was elevated to interim coach when Ime Udoka got suspended days before the 2022-23 season tipped. The Celtics didn’t help his cause by giving him a staff thin on NBA experience, particularly as Will Hardy left this summer to coach the Jazz and top assistant Damon Stoudamire departed in March to take over at Georgia Tech.

Mazzulla doesn’t have the luxury of making mistakes and learning from them in his early days on the job. Every misstep is magnified given Boston’s goals after falling short in the NBA Finals last season.

The Celtics still have an awfully long way to go to create history. No one will remember that third-quarter timeout if the Celtics simply get bounced on their home turf in Game 5.

But if they do pull off what no team in NBA history has done, that quick-trigger timeout by Mazzulla could turn into a career-defining moment. He needs to continue to steady his players moving forward.

In the biggest moment of the season, Mazzulla’s game management was as good as it’s been all season. All a coach can do is put their players in the best position to succeed. By stepping outside his comfort zone, that’s exactly what Mazzulla did.

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