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Joe Mazzulla Looks Totally Lost Out There

11:43 AM EDT on May 22, 2023

The Celtics played hard for eight minutes on Sunday. It's just unfortunate for them that a basketball game lasts another 40.

In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat were up by 15 at halftime, and by 30 midway through the third quarter. Jimmy Butler, who has never forgotten a slight, copied Al Horford's "timeout" taunt from Game 1. Butler didn't have to work too hard for the lead, because Miami's shooters shot 19-of-35 from three. The entire fourth quarter was garbage time; the Heat won 128-102 to take a 3-0 series lead.

Jayson Tatum chose an all-white suit for the road game in Miami and, humiliatingly, had to handle postgame press in that same outfit after shooting 6-for-18 from the field. When Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla took the podium, he looked somehow even worse: like death incarnate, or like a man who had just watched The Town for the fourth time in a week.

"I just didn't have them ready to play," Mazzulla said. "Whatever it was, whether it was the starting lineup or just an adjustment, I have to get them in a better place, ready to play." He mumbled this refrain over and over again. Asked to be more specific, Mazzulla said, "Yeah, I just didn't have them ready to play. I just didn't have them execute the proper game plan, I didn't put them in the right mentality, to be ready. It's my job to make sure that they're connected and that they're ready to play and I didn't do that."

It was a grim spectacle. ESPN's Brian Windhorst had a piece up by 2 a.m. on Monday close-reading the presser and suggesting that Mazzulla would become the fall guy for Boston's postseason humiliation. Mazzulla, who became interim coach after Ime Udoka's suspension, was promoted to the permanent job in February. (The details of his contract extension have not been made public.) This is his first NBA head coaching job, and he has never led a team through the postseason before, but nobody can expose the opposition quite as gruesomely as Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra.

Mazzulla blamed himself for not getting the team connected, but perhaps a core that's competed together for several seasons, including a Finals run last year, should already be sufficiently connected. The Celtics might now be rethinking their pair of star wings. This offseason, they have little choice but to draw up a huge extension for Jaylen Brown, who made the All-NBA second team and has shot 23-of-61, including 2-of-20 from three, in this series. Brown would otherwise become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2024; even if they ultimately hope to trade the contract, they'll secure him on a hefty deal. That could mean that he and Tatum would soon each be making over $50 million a year.

Whether that duo is worth that commitment is the looming existential question of this team. Before the Celtics have to make that decision, they might consider whether to replace the coach. Windhorst wrote of a disembodied "rising expectation" that Mazzulla would get the boot after the conclusion of the series. No NBA team has won a playoff series after a 3-0 deficit, and it's difficult to believe that this guy would be the first to reach that accomplishment.

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