Imagine if you took a young chef working at a typical chain Tex-Mex restaurant and a Michelin rated chef at a fancy high end restaurant and switched their places for a Cooking Channel series. That’s kind of how I feel about the coaches in this series.
Now, that’s not meant as a direct shot at Joe Mazzulla. He’s got a lot of talent and the Celtics hired him for a reason. I just think he doesn’t have as much experience and cycles as you would want with a coach of a title contending team. None of that is new news.
Back to the analogy. Erik Spoelstra is doing masterful things with the ingredients that he’s been given. He’s mixing and matching and adding just the right spices and he has the timing down pat. But at the end of the day, there’s really only a few staple ingredients to work with. The tacos, burritos, enchiladas, and fajitas are all just variations on the same few themes. At some point the menu just becomes repetitive and boring.
On the other hand, Mazzulla has a larger selection of top-notch ingredients. There are dozens of different ways to use those ingredients and he already has a few signature dishes that have had wild success. Some haven’t worked out so well, but those are also learning opportunities for him.
Like all analogies, this one breaks down at some point. The “ingredients” on the Celtics have a lot more to say about the outcome of the “dish” and the Heat have a few elite “ingredients“ as well. But I hope you can work with me on the overall point.
As the series progresses you can see the Celtics feeling more and more comfortable with all the various looks the Heat are running at them on both sides of the ball. Both Mazzulla and the team are finding their footing.
The Heat’s zone defense is a little jarring at first. Not because zones are anything really that special, but the Heat run them more than most teams and at an elite level. Still, there are ways to exploit the zone and the Celtics are more than capable of doing so. There are a lot of creative playmakers and shot creators on this team. Their versatility is a strength, they just needed to find the right ways to attack.
On the other size of the ball, the Celtics are getting the timing of Jimmy Butler’s pump-fakes. He’s clever enough to switch things up, but he’s finding it harder and harder to work into the mid-post for that fadeaway jumper. The Celtics are flashing help at him and Bam Adebayo, turning them into passers and scrambling back to run Miami’s shooters off the line.
Mazzulla also seems to have figured out the knack for calling timeouts to stop a run or give the team a needed reset when things are going sideways. His rotations are tight and he’s found the right mix of players for this series.
These are the kinds of adjustments that would have been nice to see earlier in the series, but better late than never. You knew that there would be a few games where Jimmy would look unbeatable. You knew that the Heat could get hot from outside. We just didn’t know that all those things would happen in the first 3 games. Now we are seeing the Celtics’ talent advantage win out.
There’s still absolutely zero room for error. The Celtics have to play perfectly if they want to stay alive. But there’s more and more reason to believe that they have found the right recipe for success.
Let’s see what they have on the menu for Saturday night.