Is it like this in Hollywood? Or on Broadway?
When “Mortal Engines” flamed out at the movie box office in 2018, did the industry’s rag sheets and podcasts demand Peter Jackson never get another screenplay writing job? Was there a groundswell among The Great White Way patrons to trade Beverly D’Angelo to another flop after her appearance in the play “Rockabye Hamlet” in 1976 – which lasted all of seven performances?
Or is that phenomenon unique to sports?
Today, it’s the Boston Celtics’ turn under the microscope, after their paws-up performance in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals Sunday in Miami.
The Title-18 aspirations, the dream of a Cs-Lakers NBA Finals to break the championship tie between the two proud franchises….pfffft. And it has left Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla — quirky and lovable while Boston rolled through the regular season, hailed all of eight days ago for relying on love to inspire his charges in his first season as head coach, replacing Ime Udoka — to someone crushed for getting worked by Erik Spoelstra. The blame runs from the Celtics’ staff, to its star players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, to president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, and anyone else affiliated with the green and white.
Eight days ago, Tatum was a Game 7 hero. Now, he’s a Game 3 zero.
Everyone knows exactly what Mazzulla has done wrong in this series. Just like everyone knew exactly why Doc Rivers was a coaching moron as the Philadelphia 76ers couldn’t close out Tatum and Boston in the conference semis, and why Mike Budenholzer should give his 2021 championship ring back after losing a 1-8 first-round matchup to the Miami Heat, and why Monty Williams should never coach again after the Phoenix Suns’ second straight devastating, season-ending playoff loss at home.
And Mazzulla make the cardinal mistake of too-much/no-not-enough blame taking after the Heat blew the Celtics’ doors off in Game 3, repeatedly saying he didn’t have his team ready to play.
Let’s be clear: when fans and morning and afternoon drive local sports radio hosts bleat on and on about “adjustments” that coaches aren’t making, and should make, and would make if they weren’t incompetent, drooling fools, all they’re saying is ‘make my team win.’ People who can’t change a tire without calling AAA or find their favorite show streaming on Netflix without their teenagers in the room are, somehow, now experts on how to stop Jimmy Butler and Nikola Jokić. That’s life in the big — and, often, wholly unknowledgeable — city.
But it doesn’t mean the pressure to win at this level, on this stage, from fans and pundits, isn’t soul-crushingly real. It is. It warps reality.
Ask Budenholzer, the two-time NBA Coach of the Year, and owner of the .693 win percentage (271-120) and 2021 title in Milwaukee. Or Williams, who was a chief catalyst in turning the Suns’ basketball culture from a joke to an industry standard. Or Rivers, constantly castigated for his teams’ playoff performances over the last few years, ignoring the fact that you have to win a lot of games — more than 1,100 in his career, at last count — to get to those playoff performances. All of them have been fired in the last month. (Toronto’s Nick Nurse, who also like Rivers and Budenholzer has a ‘ship, didn’t even get to the postseason, getting cashiered after the Raptors failed to make the playoffs.)
Boston has made the conference finals five times, including this season, in the last seven years. The Celtics made the finals last year, and were two games away from a title, before Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors woke up and put them to sleep. Tatum responded with a first-team All-NBA campaign this year; Brown was second-team. They have figured out how to play championship-level basketball together. Boston was second in the league in offensive and defensive rating this season. It’s not like this thing is broken.
And yet the notion of Boston going forward with Tatum and Brown, and giving each of them what seemed, a month ago, to be shoo-in extensions this summer, no matter the seemingly prohibitive cost, is now viewed more cautiously with the Celtics on the verge of getting swept by Miami. Both have been neutered for long stretches by the Heat, unable to put their fingerprints on this series while Butler clowns them. Mazzulla’s reluctance to pair Robert Williams III and Al Horford together for long stretches, as Udoka did last season, has been excoriated.
That the Nuggets are Exhibit A in not panicking after playoff disappointments, in not blowing up a promising roster, in not trading, say, Jamal Murray after his injuries of recent seasons, is lost on you when it’s your team losing in May and June. That the Heat stuck with Spoelstra after a crushing 2011 finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks, when the SuperFriends had been together just a year and the pressure on the then-fourth-year coach was at its greatest, is lost to history.
Miami had Pat Riley — Pat Riley — sitting in the bullpen, ready to step in and replace Spoelstra. Yet Riley, the team’s president, then and now, stuck by his young coach after the Mavericks’ 4-2 finals win, in which Dallas’ Rick Carlisle clearly made better in-game decisions than his Miami counterpart.
“No, I’m not going to do that,” Riley said at the time, about his own potential return to the bench. “It doesn’t mean that I don’t have the fire, but no, we’ve got a great young coach here and I want to support him and hope that he can grow like I did. … We’re going to bring Erik back. From that standpoint, that’s how I feel about it.”
The Heat then won back-to-back NBA titles, with Spoelstra unlocking the potential of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh with positionless, read and react-sprinting basketball, going small, surrounding the big three with shooters. Miami, though, hasn’t won another title since 2013.
But the Heat, and Riley, have continued to empower Spoelstra, year after year, allowing him to figure things out, whether or not those decisions end up in championships. Most organizations, these days, would never display that kind of loyalty. Is it because of social media? A new generation of ownership, many from the world of hedge funds and multi-billion dollar deals, who see the world more in bottom lines and fungible employees than in sticking with good people through tough times? All of the above?
The Celtics will have a choice when this series ends — and it will, most certainly, end with the Heat winning and moving on to the finals. Boston could fire Mazzulla and replace him with any of the above-mentioned coaches currently seeking employment again, or Mike D’Antoni, or a top young assistant from a winning program — a Kenny Atkinson from Golden State, or a Jay Larranaga or Brian Shaw, each with long Celtics ties, from the LA Clippers. It could look to trade Brown, or Marcus Smart, or Derrick White, and bring in another two-way player with Brown’s skill set to pair alongside Tatum.
Or, Boston could swallow hard, take its lumps this summer, give Brown his well-earned extension and run it back again next season, with few changes. Is Mazzulla better than any of those more proven coaches? No. He was an emergency replacement for Udoka, whose off-court decisions left him suspended — and, ultimately, an ex-employee. Mazzulla is 34. He struggled against Philly before Tatum rescued everyone in Game 7. He’s not going to be a finished product by the fall.
But the Celtics nonetheless could still extend grace, give Mazzulla the latitude to improve at his craft, to find his voice as the main man. They could demand he better utilize his two Williamses, Robert and Grant, and see if he’ll sink or swim. (This would include hiring one or two assistant coaches with some gray in their beards this summer to help him navigate the myriad decisions head coaches have to make, every day.) You could always fire Mazzulla in 12 months — or, seven or eight — if there haven’t been signs of tangible growth. There will always be a heavy-hitter available to replace him. It’s the Celtics. Everyone wants the job.
That would not go over well on WEEI 93.7 FM. It would not be what Gang Green wants to hear in the taverns, or on the street — or, for that matter, in the comments section below. It would be, to be sure, the harder path to sell and justify.
We could argue this some more while we watch Michael Malone, in his eighth season behind the bench in Denver, and Spoelstra, in his 15th with Miami, slug it out in the finals.
(Top photo of Jayson Tatum and Joe Mazzulla: Jesse D. Garrabrant / NBAE via Getty Images)