BOSTON — Marcus Smart had already thrown down the blood and guts gauntlet, laying it out before a few cameras in the dressing room while Joe Mazzulla was still speaking to the majority of reporters from the podium next door.
Now several minutes later, the Celtics guard was standing on the edge of the parquet court in TD Garden. The joint was quiet, where first his team heard loud encouragement Tuesday night, then groans and even an unhealthy batch of boos from those who had stayed with the 115-103 not-that-close Game 5 loss to the Sixers.
There was a lot of “See you Sunday” sentiment being thrown around in the backstage area by friends and family and staff, but if the Celts, down 3-2 in the series, don’t win Thursday in Philadelphia, the floor under Smart’s feet will have seen its last NBA game of 2022-23.
Until Game 6 commences, Smart knows the blame will be flowing from online, print and radio talk show sources. He’d already acknowledged the Celts’ energy wasn’t right — certainly not enough to deal with what the Sixers had brought to town.
Mazzulla, in particular, is taking high heat, but out there in the late quiet, he talked about a target-rich environment.
“It’s everybody. It happens,” Smart, himself a popular pinata for many in this area, told Heavy Sports. “We get so much s*** talked about us as players, and we need to be held accountable. The coaches, too.
“But just because things aren’t going right, it’s not just one person’s fault. It’s not his fault, and it’s not my fault, it’s not Jayson’s fault, it’s not Jaylen’s fault — it’s EVERYBODY’S fault. It’s a full team, and we’ve got to figure it out together.”
Joe Mazzulla Taking Criticism
But while the players are moving targets, Smart knows Mazzulla is catching perhaps the largest portion of hell for the Celtics being one game from summer (or one from another must-have Sunday).
“It happens,” said Smart. “We still believe in our coach. We believe in Joe to the fullest. We haven’t lost faith in him and we won’t. He has a game plan; it’s on us to go out and execute it. We’re the ones out there playing, so we’ve got to help him. He’s been doing great.”
Philly coach Doc Rivers wasn’t criticizing the Celts, but when he said his lads were able to lead by as many as 21 because of ball movement, spacing and their best cutting, he was mentioning things the C’s abandoned at critical times.
“It’s not that we’re not sticking with stuff,” Smart told Heavy. “We’re playing against a really good team, and it’s all about adjustments in the playoffs. They’re doing a really good job of adjusting. We’re not. We have to figure it out. That’s the thing, the playoffs are different. It arises different obstacles for you. You’ve just got to maneuver them correctly.”
Celtics Familiar with 3-2 Deficits
In this same situation in last year’s second round, the Celtics did so. They lost Game 5 at home, then went to Milwaukee and evened the series before taking Game 7 back here.
In his aforementioned locker room talk, Smart laid out what he’d learned from that experience.
“The brutality of it,” he said. “It’s a true dogfight, scratching and clawing, biting, blood, everything. And if you’re not willing to pretty much get dirty, if you’re not willing to bleed.
“If you’re not willing to break something, if you’re not willing to tear something — going hard — then you shouldn’t be on that court because that’s what it is. That’s what the playoffs are about. You know, hopefully you stay safe, but that’s the mentality you gotta go. You’ve got to be able to risk it all for these games. And that’s the mentality we’ve got to have.”
Without that approach, Smart may have seen the Garden for the last time this season when he finished chatting and headed off.