Boston’s head coach needs to find answers and the Celtics’ identity, and fast.
Identities are similar to stories. Both are crafted over time, and they unfold through discreet moments that pile up into something bigger. Each moment unique, but a link in the greater narrative chain. Simultaneously individual and co-dependent, and while the moments may be unique, there are common threads, common characters, common themes.
The Celtics started the season, seemingly, with a clear identity crafted over 26 games. 26 moments with common threads, themes, and characters. Play fast, get up boat loads of threes, defend just well enough to let the offense carry the way.
After that initial burst out of the gate, the threes stopped falling and it got ugly. Then, as the season went on, that Celtics’ identify faded, but it didn’t evaporate.
The upside was that the defense improved, and the three-point rate stayed high (they finished 2nd in the NBA in 3PA per game). They began to fashion a new identity: defensive inconsistency. One game the best defense in the NBA, the next game getting burned by the Houston Rockets. The swings in defensive quality were dramatic between games, and even between quarters. Unlike the previous season, where the Celtics’ defense first identity was carved into hardened iron, this identity was written in pencil.
As a narrative progresses, and storylines begin to tangle, it gets exponentially more difficult to hold onto those common threads and common themes. The pressure increases, one decision has unintended consequences for another character, and for all but the most talented authors, things can go sideways quickly.
Even some of the greatest authors of all time have struggled with this, a famous example being George R.R. Martin and his “Meereenese Knot.” Like Martin aimlessly wandering through Essos, Joe Mazzulla has lost the plot. In other words, the Celtics no longer have an identity, and they are on the verge of losing their season because of it.
The Miami Heat are the opposite. No team in the NBA has a clearer identity than them, and it’s no coincidence that Erik Spoelstra is their coach. Play hard, win on the margins, and play even harder. If Joe Mazzulla is George R.R. Martin at his worst, Erik Spoelstra is Charles Dickens, weaving one of the greatest narratives in under 600 pages.
When a team with a concrete identity faces a team with a fragile one, it has the effect of wearing away any trace of the fragile identity. Case in point, the Celtics averaged 39 3PAs per game in both Round 1 and Round 2. They are at 32 per game against the Heat. Unfortunately, the only part of their identity that’s made itself known in the Eastern Conference Finals is their defensive identity and its woeful inconsistency.
There’s been a handful of truly puzzling decisions made by Joe in the last two games that are indicative of a coach grasping for something to hold on to and a team looking for answers, a thread of the story that will help him bring it all to a happy resolution. None have worked, and arguably have pulled him further away from that goal.
The first is the puzzling, bizarre choice to play Payton Pritchard in Game 1. This isn’t a referendum on Pritchard as a player. I actually quite like him, but he was thrust into an impossible situation. Barely seeing minutes in the last few months of the regular season and chained to the bench in the first two rounds of the playoffs, it should be no surprise he wasn’t up to the task against the Heat. This felt like Mazzulla making an adjustment to an adjustment that hadn’t happened yet. Joe outcoached himself.
The second is Robert Williams, or I should say, the lack of Robert Williams. Rob was dreadful in Game 1. He was the very opposite in Game 2. The foundation of the Celtics offense at its best in Game 2 was the Tatum-Williams pick-and-roll. The Heat had no answer. Whether it was Tatum getting to the rim, pulling up from behind the pick, or hitting Rob on the short roll, it felt like a good possession every time down. Defensively, Rob was disciplined and aggressive. With potentially their season on the line and the lead quickly turning into a deficit, Rob was nowhere to be found — a forgotten character in a twisting narrative.
The last is the decision to defend Jimmy Butler straight up 1-on-1, in the most important game of your season. I understand the argument: you want to make Jimmy make tough shots and not give him easy kickouts to Miami’s shooters. There’s ways to achieve both goals. Look at how the Heat defended Tatum: shading help, forcing difficult passes to the corners, going zone. There are options that don’t involve Grant Williams being left on an island in an empty side isolation (for what it’s worth, Grant did fine, Jimmy is just that good). Mazzulla let Jimmy Butler become the main character.
So as the Celtics sit, down 2-0 heading to Miami, Mazzulla needs to do the impossible. He needs to rekindle their identity, whatever that is. He needs to rediscover the common threads and themes that put the characters in position to shine. He needs to untangle the Miami knot, and he needs to do it very, very quickly.