If the Celtics have a fatal flaw, it might be Joe Mazzulla’s stubbornness – The Boston Globe

But he’s still obstinate, as evidenced by the Tatum Time clutch possessions to nowhere this season, and Kristaps Porzingis left on a desert island defending Hawks star Dejounte Murray during overtime of last Thursday’s loss.

A smart coach, Mazzulla is the Marcus Smart of coaches — a hyper-competitive, hard-nosed, high-basketball-IQ individual who sometimes gets blinded by his unshakable self-belief. That belief is his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. Will Mazzulla be willing and able to adjust or adapt in time when it’s called for during a playoff series, as it most certainly will?

Remember last year’s playoffs when former Celtics coach Doc Rivers ( 76ers) and then Miami maestro Erik Spoelstra were getting the better of Mazzulla? Some of his players called out his coaching. They said the team lost its defensive identity and quibbled with his lineup choices. Smart endorsed criticism of Mazzulla as rightful.

This year, Mazzulla has blended an uber-talented curation of talent into a harmonious hoops outfit that outclasses opponents most nights. He was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for March and also won that honor for December. The Celtics boast the NBA’s best record heading into Wednesday’s clash with the Thunder at the Garden. They sport a ridiculous 11.5 per game point differential, a testament to their wire-to-wire dominance.

But there are still red flags for the Green that trace back to coaching.

In games decided by 3 points or fewer, the Celtics are 5-7, 19th-best in the NBA. According to Stats LLC, they have the worst shooting percentage in the NBA with the game on the line, 12.5 percent (2 for 16), defined as the last 24 seconds of the final quarter with the game within 3 points.

Those numbers represent a potential trip-wire that could blow up the pursuit of Banner No. 18.

Nights like last Thursday in Atlanta, where Jayson Tatum got the ball in a tie game for the final possession of regulation and settled for a leaning 25-footer with two defenders on him while the other four Celtics stood around as if they were waiting for a bus can’t be chalked up to an anomaly.

It’s baffling that the best offense in basketball plays differently in the final minute of close games than the other 47 minutes, when the ball movement and shot opportunities flow like champagne on New Year’s Eve.

Tatum is the undisputed best player on the Celtics. He’s one of the best players in the NBA, but the identity of the Celtics is rooted in an enviable ensemble cast, featuring three players averaging more than 20 points per game, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Porzingis.

Yet too often Mazzulla resorts to/enables Tatum Time in late situations. The result is tough shots.

It happened against the Warriors at the end of regulation in a 132-126 overtime loss Dec. 19. It happened at the end of regulation in an OT win over the Timberwolves Jan. 10. There was the failed fadeaway in the first home loss of the season Jan. 19 to the Nuggets. We had the 19-dribble Tour de Farce against the Cavaliers in a loss March 5.

Of the 27 players to attempt 10 or more shots this season when the team was behind or tied in the last minute of the fourth quarter, Tatum ranks 26th, shooting 18.2 percent (2 for 11). By comparison, Steph Curry is 14 for 25.

Mazzulla dismisses this problem as bored folks needing to “create a headline.” Sure, Coach.

We know Mazzulla can draw up effective plays in crunch time. He did it in overtime of the loss to the Hawks. The ball was inbounded to Porzingis outside the left block. Tatum flashed down the lane. Porzingis hit his fast friend, Brown, for a jumper at the top of the key with 6.2 seconds left.

All three of the team’s best offensive players were options, instead of two being turned into traffic cones.

“Joe drew up a play,” Tatum said. “We had 4-5 different options and KP happened to be the first one.”

The 35-year-old Mazzulla, once an excellent point guard at West Virginia, is capable of recognizing the need for alteration. He just has to be willing to acknowledge his initial philosophy isn’t working.

Remember when Jumpin’ Joe tried to block the shot of Suns player Royce O’Neale, enforcing the Celtics no free shots after the whistle edict? Sometimes it feels like he deals with questioning of his strategy the same way.

For example, he was questioned on the dubious strategy of having Porzingis switched on to Atlanta’s Murray at will. Murray, who scored all 11 of Atlanta’s OT points, hit his first three shots against the large Latvian before Mazzulla switched tactics.

Mazzulla said forcing Porzingis to guard Murray on switches was all part of the master plan to prepare for the playoffs.

But when pressed about using such situations as a late-game laboratory for the postseason with the No. 1 seed in the East locked up, he also stated he thought the coverage, which he abandoned late, was the best way to try to win that game.

He must always be right.

What we will find out this postseason is whether Mazzulla’s instincts prioritize being proven right or being the right man for the job of raising Banner 18.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him @cgasper and on Instagram @cgaspersports.

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