NBA Execs, Coaches Call Out Celtics Stars’ Pattern: ‘Man Up’

Jayson Tatum (left) and Jaylen Brown of the Celtics.

Getty Jayson Tatum (left) and Jaylen Brown of the Celtics.

NBA people may disagree slightly on the main cause for the Celtics slide to the edge of elimination, but coaches, executives and scouts who spoke to Heavy Sports agree on one thing.

They’ve seen it before.

“There is a pattern of behavior that is common here,” said one Eastern Conference coach, “so it’s not so crazy that these guys are struggling to execute down the stretch of games.”

“It’s a pattern,” echoed a league exec. “Last year it seemed like they had two terrible games in every series they played. Now you throw in them losing Game 2 when they weren’t terrible, and this is where you are.

“To win in the playoffs, you really have to play well. It’s not that complicated. And when you have Marcus Smart and (Jaylen) Brown and (Al) Horford and (Malcolm) Brogdon … like, I’m not sure, other than Robert Williams, who HAS played well. …

“There’s like six players that are having terrible playoffs in comparison to their regular season. And their offensive struggles may have led to so many of the defensive challenges that they’ve had. It’s dispiriting.”

Joe Mazzulla Taking Too Much Blame

The largest and easiest target on the dartboard these days is Joe Mazzulla, whose inelegant press conferences feed the narrative of a first-year head coach trying to find his way in deeper waters. But one veteran scout who’s had to keep very close tabs on the Celtics took a step back for perspective.

“Joe seems to be taking most of the abuse, and I’m not saying he doesn’t have things that he could be better at, but these patterns have happened with Brad Stevens and Ime Udoka, as well,” he said. “Same types of issues down the stretch of games — sharing the ball, ball movement, just dribbling out the clock, lot of isolation basketball, defensive lapses. All these things have existed for years. The difference between this year and last year is that last year these things didn’t catch up with them fully until The Finals. This year it’s happening a series earlier.

“Jayson and Jaylen still have room to grow. Do they have it all figured out yet? I don’t think so. And having three coaches in three years doesn’t help either. If they had any one of those coaches all three years, they probably would be better at this stage.”

The scout went on to point out that Tatum and Brown are well known around the league for playing into opponents’ hands.

“When things aren’t going well, Jayson or Jayson, or both of them, or Marcus, they’ll all try to take the game over by themselves. That’s not so much selfish as it is their habits. It’s how they’ve been playing for years. When Tatum scored those 51 points, he took the game over, and he was able to. But you’re not always going to be able to, because a team like Miami will force him to a bad shot or to give the ball up, and too many times he tries to force it and he makes a bad decision.

“I know from someone who worked there that Stevens was working with Tatum on that in his rookie year — that when you get to the paint, the extra pass is still necessary. They know that.”

Said a coach who’s taken teams deep into spring, “At this stage of the playoffs, your weaknesses are exposed. They were exposed last year in The Finals.”

Celtics weaknesses most loudly include an inability to sustain focus and stick with what works, as well as a lack of resiliency in the moment. They may bounce back in the next game or close an early gap, but when hit hard in crunch time, they are far more likely to fold. That’s not on Mazzulla.

“I don’t understand for the life of me why we blame coaches so much when everyone who’s a part of the business knows you don’t win in this league unless you have players who take responsibility,” the coach said. “That doesn’t mean taking the ball and going one-on-one; it means taking the responsibility to make the right play. That’s the kind of thing that gets contagious and leads to wins. Like, man up on defense and take on the challenge.”

The coach then paused and added, “The funny thing is, that’s who Joe Mazzulla is. That’s the kind of personality he has. He may be having some issues as a coach … but if the Celtics were playing with the kind of intensity Joe Mazzulla has, they’d damn sure be taking responsibility on themselves and fighting back.

“I want to know why a Tatum or Brown isn’t just standing up and saying, ‘I got Butler. I’m going to be all over him.’ That’s the kind of thing you want to see. I’m frustrated that there’s not more fire.”

Don’t Forget the Heat

That last comment was repeated to a league source, who replied flatly, “Miami stole their heart in Game 3.

“They did it to New York, and they did it to Milwaukee. I mean, they’ve had like one bad game in the playoffs. It’s been crazy. I’m not sure there’s been enough credit give to Miami’s shooting and their toughness. People will talk about Jimmy, but it’s their whole team. They’re just stepping up and beating people.”

Another front office vet believes the Celtics have played a major role in their fall to 0-3 in these Eastern Conference finals.

“This makes no sense — especially for a group of guys that have played well all year,” he said. “You can look at some of their losses to bad teams, but they still won the second-most games in the league (one short of Milwaukee’s 58). You’ve got Horford, who is the second-leading 3-point shooter in the NBA, and you’ve got Brogdon, who’s the Sixth Man of the Year. Derrick White is on the All-Defensive team, and Jaylen and Jayson are All-NBA. It makes no sense that they could play that well all year and then lose it like this now in this series.

“Their confidence is rattled, and that’s not by their coach; that’s by your opposition. Miami is doing that to them… or they’re doing it to themselves. Part of it is Miami’s defense, and part of it is they can’t make a shot, and the pressure’s mounting.”

The Celtics will either handle it in Game 4 to extend the series, or they’ll locate the shut-off valve as they did Sunday.