BOSTON -- Two things have been clear over Joe Mazzulla's first four months as Celtics interim head coach: The man loves to chaw away at some gum, and he loves to hang on to his timeouts.
Mazzulla's aversion to stopping action has been well documented throughout the season. He's the kind of coach that would rather let his team play through runs by the opposition. Or in the the case of Tuesday night's loss in Miami, he doesn't mind keeping Boston's opponent on their heels in the final seconds of a close game.
The shorthanded Celtics had blown a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Heat. They couldn't figure out Miami's zone defense and went scoreless for nearly six minutes. With all of that, Boston found themselves down by two after Bam Adebayo drained a go-ahead jumper with 20 seconds left.
Most of the time in such a situation, a head coach would call a timeout to draw up a play and advance the ball to halfcourt. Mazzulla had a pair of stoppages in his back pocket at the time to do just that.
But he did not do that. Mazzulla decided to let things roll, with his best (available) players on the floor and the matchups that he wanted against the Miami defense.
It did not work out well for the Celtics. Jayson Tatum brought the ball up the floor, and was met by a Miami double team at the top of the key. He tried to swing a pass to Grant Williams in the forward's corner office, but it was not a good pass by any stretch of the imagination. Tyler Herro picked it off, and Miami held on for a 98-95 win over Boston.
Why let those timeouts evaporate into the void in such an important situation? Mazzulla explained his line of thinking after the game, saying Boston's lack of execution had more to do with the play that he called than hanging onto his timeouts.
"What I did know is the absolutes. The absolute is we had the ball in our best player's hands," he said of Tatum. "I knew that because of their offensive lineup, they were gonna play this coverage. I just didn't call the right play. I have to call a better play to get the better spacing for him to see it better."
Tatum agreed, and took the blame for the defeat.
"We didn't want them to necessarily set up their defense during the timeout, so I think not calling a timeout was smart," he said, defending his head coach. "Obviously, it's on me. They trust me in that situation to make the right play, regardless of being double-teamed or not. I can't let us down like that and not even give ourselves a chance to win the game."
Maybe a timeout would have helped calm some nerves and given players a few moments to gather themselves. Perhaps Mazzulla could have drawn up a better play in that time. We'll never know, but it doesn't sound like the Celtics were second-guessing that decision in the moments following the loss.
Make no mistake, Mazzulla was outcoached by Erik Spoelstra on Tuesday night. Sure, he was without the services of Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Al Horford, and Malcolm Brogdon, and they would have made a difference. But the Celtics still had a shot at winning being shorthanded, if only they could have figured out Miami's zone. That falls on the coach.
And Tatum certainly deserves his share of the blame as well. He led the way for the Celtics with 31 points, 14 rebounds, and seven assists, but he also turned the ball over seven times. He had two giveaways in the final 80 seconds. Late-game turnovers have been an issue, with Tatum committing nine in clutch situations this season.
The Celtics are still an NBA-best 35-14 on the season and hold a 3.5-game advantage on the second-place 76ers in the East. There has been very little second-guessing when it comes to Mazzulla's decisions, but criticism over his unwillingness to call a timeout continues to grow a louder.
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