Celtics defense finally flips the switch after Joe Mazzulla’s surprising timeout

Celtics defense finally flips the switch after Joe Mazzulla’s surprising timeout

MIAMI — Coming out of halftime, the Celtics needed something to change if they wanted to salvage their season. But after a few minutes, it was clear that was not the case. Jaylen Brown was trapped in the corner, another turnaround was coming and things were about to get out of hand.

Then suddenly, a sixth Celtic was walking around the pitch. There was Joe Mazzulla, calling a timeout in the middle of a possession.

It was a real aberration, because the coach who held the timeout to let his team work out their problems for so much of the year burned one just to prevent a single game from going south.

Mazzulla had seen how letting turns guide themselves could turn momentum in the wrong direction. One more spiral could mean the end.

“I just wanted to make sure we had a good shot on that, and I felt like possessions before that weren’t going well defensively,” Mazzulla said. “But we were still playing with a good sense of rhythm, but obviously we lost the advantage and wanted to reset a bit. We had lost a 50/50 ball to start the quarter that I think we just had to nip that in the bud and take the opportunity to do it.

Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

But as Mazzulla collected his thoughts during the timeout, Marcus Smart took his place. He’s been the leader of this franchise for years, the compass that guides them when they seem lost.

He had seen his teammates look tired, hesitant and even intimidated at times in this series. After Miami spent the first 3.5 games making the Celtics uncomfortable, seeing Brown trapped in that corner, it was time to flip the script and fight back.

“(I was just telling them to keep going. That’s a big deal for us right now,” Smart said, after the Celtics’ 116-99 Game 4 win. tired, get out of the game. Put someone else in there who’s fresh and can carry on. But we have to keep doing whatever it takes to win this game tonight.

As they returned to the field, Mazzulla put the ball back in the hands of Smart. If he’s going to spearhead the attack, while Tatum and Brown are still struggling to find their way, it’s up to him to turn the tide.

Smart began to slowly bring the ball to Brown to perform the same move they’ve seen failed a million times. But suddenly Smart hijacked Jimmy Butler and burst into the lane. He threw it to Al Horford who swung it to Derrick White and the Heat didn’t even bother to argue. The next game, Horford stripped Max Strus as Brown and Tatum took off sprinting past Butler to take the lead and never looked back.

Everything that this team does and how it plays changed from that moment on. The key third-quarter adjustment was ultimately chasing shooters off the line, something Athleticism broke down before Game 4. Caleb Martin was still setting them on fire in the first half, so they decided it was time to shut down hard and change his sense of pace.

“This team beats you by outplaying you and knocking down those threes and those opportunities,” Grant Williams said. “So we just have to maintain our balance, maintain our perspective by just understanding that no matter what happens, just go that extra mile.”

Miami prefers those soft closes on Martin because he thrives on taking the little fake 3 pump he was burying in Game 3. Heat shooters are conditioned to lock on the rim and launch with confidence so a defender charges them.

It was time for the Celtics to take away that first shot opportunity and then send another contest to ensure Miami’s floor spacers were to become playmakers instead. That’s when their offense started to fall back and Boston’s got easier.

“Exactly that. We pressured them,” Smart said. “We weren’t playing on our back foot, like we have been in this series. Once we started chasing these guys out of the three and having them make plays, everyone did a good job of spinning and helping each other out and then it got us out and running.

This is the formula Mazzulla preached whether the team succeeded or struggled this year. After players complained about their defensive identity disappearing this week, the second half of Game 4 embodied what defined that defense for years.

“I think today was our best game defensively, how well we were moving, how we were turning,” Jayson Tatum said. “We tried to make the guys uncomfortable, and we were just there for each other. It won’t be perfect. You are going to get beat up. You are going to opt for a fake pump. But it felt like we were all connected, especially in that second half defensively, just turning, helping, things like that.

After Malcolm Brogdon said on Monday that the Celtics’ defensive identity had diminished, Mazzulla said their connectivity had never diminished in Game 4. Doing everything to stop the ball, everyone knew they had to follow suit the step then recover. There was no more hesitation.

“They have their backs against the wall so you know they are going to play desperately,” said Bam Adebayo. “They will try to find ways to disrupt our flow of play. But the most important thing about us is that we know we have to fight back.

Then the Celtics got wiser on the offensive end. They can only create so many transition opportunities, but they had to recognize which parts of their offense weren’t working and redirect them elsewhere.

Brown’s shot still went, but he at least accepted that in the second half. There was a pivotal moment when he denied another baseline pull-up and fed the ball to a shooter for an easy assist. After spending the first half trying to score on traffic and ignoring his shooters again, it was nice to see Brown use his goalscoring threat to make the easy pass.

“Smart was in my ear, letting me know where the game was at,” Brown said. “Just keep being aggressive, keep making good plays. It’s not always you who put the ball in the basket; who helped us win tonight. So just keep making the right plays, and the game will open up for you, and that’s what Smart does, it’s just be a leader, be vocal, and we’ve found a way to win.

Boston struggled so much with the Miami zone because the Celtics only saw two lanes most of the time. Draw a trap and throw it over a reel, or rotate it to get a shooter in the corner. But Boston struggled to hit those corner 3s, so they had to find a better way to get the ball back. This is where Brown came in.

“Yeah, the way they play defense, the way they play in the zone, the way they try to hide the clashes, they try to make sure they keep their main defenders higher and try to hide their under defenders,” Brown said. “It took us a bit of time to kind of figure it out. It won’t always be you who score the ball normally because they don’t guard us normally.

Then, as Brown’s game took off, Tatum found his rhythm to reach his shot. He was attacking earlier in the clock while his teammates were still setting up, hampering Miami’s ability to trap him and force him into an awkward shot or turnover. Those lane floats gave him the confidence to start burying pull-up 3s and it all snowballed from there.

“The great goalscorers, they will understand it at some point. You have to try to make it as difficult as possible,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said of Tatum. “He had good clean looks, in transition, open 3s, end of possession stuff. But there’s no easy way, especially when you get to this point. You don’t expect a great player like Tatum to have many nights off. You have to do things that will surpass it.

Tatum is back, Brown seems to be finding some sort of offensive role, and Miami is on the back foot. The Heat will find some tweaks to counter Boston’s aggressive competition and show more discipline by closing in on Horford, White and Grant Williams now that they’re back on the pace shooting the ball.

It was a critical turnaround just in time, but Mazzulla can’t call a timeout every time he sees something wrong. The idea of ​​a 0-3 comeback seemed unlikely in the game, but the Celtics who showed up after the timeout looked like they could waltz all the way to the NBA Finals. Boston rarely showed the ability to do things consistently, but something seemed unlocked inside them in Game 4.

“We want to come back to Miami,” Brown said. “If that happens, I feel like we’ll feel good about ourselves. The next one should be fun. It should be a big game and we have to be ready to play.

(Top photo by Marcus Smart: Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

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