PHILADELPHIA — The fear of embarrassment can be a great motivating force.
Joe Mazzulla and Jayson Tatum felt it in different but important ways on Thursday night as the Boston Celtics faced a disastrous end to their season at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers.
The young coach and the star player must deal with the kind of lingering regrets that can ruin summers and stubborn résumés. They had no choice but to do something to avoid it, and that fear seemed to serve them well as Boston stayed alive with a 95-86 Eastern Conference semifinal Game 6 victory.
It became clear that most of the Celtics roster wanted, behind the scenes, for the team to return to the great lineup it rode to the NBA Finals last spring.
That means Al Horford playing defensive center and Robert Williams III playing safety, helping the other team’s worst shooter to roam and create trouble.
Last season, Williams dealt with a knee injury and was listed as a game-time decision frequently throughout the postseason (he missed seven games). He is so vital to the game plan that the nightly announcement always comes with a measure of suspense.
But that so-called “double big” lineup, which crushed teams by 25 points for every 100 possessions together, was on the floor for a total of 81 minutes throughout the regular season and has yet to play a single seconds in this series against Philadelphia. enter Game 6.
Mazzulla, who was an assistant coach under Ime Udoka on the coaching staff last season, clearly preferred not to use it. He likes rotating Horford and Williams and will use the extra spot for a scoring perimeter player like Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon.
But on Wednesday before they left for Philadelphia, because he had been criticized for his tactical actions in his first major series as head coach, Mazzulla refused. He told the players that, because James Harden is painting too quickly and Joel Embiid is getting stronger in the game, that he will go back to the old way.
Call it whatever you want: agree, agree or break; Mazzulla made a difficult pivot and threw away his game plan. And his players, after being told who knows what goes on behind closed doors, love him for it.
“I was ecstatic about it,” said guard Marcus Smart. “[Williams] It’s big for us and I’m proud that he’s on the court and that just goes to show Joe’s learning just like all of us. I know he has killed a lot, that’s right. He needed to make some changes and he did that and that’s all you can ask for. “
“I’m excited,” Horford said. “I’m very happy, Rob was there. He did a lot for us on defense.”
“It makes a big, big difference and you can just see it,” Jaylen Brown said. “It doesn’t take a professional eye to see the difference Rob makes.”
It works. The 76ers started the game shooting 1-of-11, overwhelmed by the Celtics’ size and multiple possessions in the zone defense that locked in the paint. Then in the final half, the Celtics defense stopped them again, forcing 11 consecutive misses in the fourth quarter as the game was stopped.
The Sixers didn’t seem ready as the lineup contributed to freezing their ball movement. Harden, who finished 4-of-16 shooting, and Embiid, who scored 26 points but fumbled in the fourth quarter, lost the chance to advance to the conference finals for the first time in 22 years.
“I see a sense of urgency, I see a sense of togetherness,” Mazzulla said. “Guys show that as long as they play together.”
Then there’s Tatum, who is in a different mindset. His drama is not planned, he is drowning in it. After sitting around for a few days hearing about how he really needs to get off to a good start for his team in an elimination game after going 0-of-8 out of the gate. 4 and 0-of-6 in Game 5 , Tatum played one of the worst games of his life.
And it was ugly.
He missed a lot, making one of his first 14 shots. The Celtics, with their defense-first lineup, need Tatum to increase the scoring rate and sometimes he doesn’t want to shoot.
It has the capabilities of a dark day and undoubtedly social media, but not so much the non-digital commentary throughout New England, all above him for it.
His colleagues weren’t watching TV or looking at their phones but they knew the backlash was coming. One by one Smart, Brown, Horford, Brogdon, Grant Williams and others took turns talking in Tatum’s ear during timeouts trying to shake him out of it.
“That’s s— frustrating,” Tatum said. “You want to win a lot, you want to play well and shots don’t fall and things don’t have to go away. And you want it, you want it bad.”
And you want to not face the anger of failure. A day earlier, Tatum made the All-NBA first team and the report was good enough to make him eligible to sign a contract next year worth $318 million. Everyone has seen that number. And he was 1-of-14.
He kept looking at the game clock and telling himself there was time to do something. The score is tight and there is still room for a hero.
And Tatum saved the day. He scored 16 points in the fourth quarter, three more than the 76ers scored as a team. He nailed 4-of-5 3-pointers. He stared at the crowd as they headed for the exits.
He then walked off to do a walk-off interview in front of millions of fans with ESPN sideline reporter Cassidy Hubbarth and delivered an instant classic quote:
“I am humble, one of the best basketball players in the world.”
Yes, there is no evil tonight.
“I really believe that and I know that and it’s easy to tell yourself that when you know you got 40 (points),” said Tatum an hour later after answering the flooding messages on his phone.
“But I think that shows character when you can tell yourself that if you just hit one shot, if things don’t go your way, you know, you have to be the same person, have the same attitude, same attitude up and down. . And I just kept telling myself I believed in myself until it came back.”