Basketball’s Boston Celtics — picked by many as the most talented team in the NBA playoffs — stunk up the joint last night with a weak, low-effort home game against the Philadelphia 76ers and Joel Embiid, the most valuable player in the whole league.
First-year coach Joe Mazzulla was on the hot seat to explain why his players missed so many shots — especially 3-pointers and foul shots — and couldn’t keep their opponents in check in their own building, putting themselves in a challenging 3-2 hole with two must-win games coming up to get to the next round.
Saying nothing is an art. Mazzulla hasn’t mastered it yet.
The master of the non-quote is veteran New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who gives the dullest, most vacuous unstatements of any coach, all in the guise of giving nothing away to the competition. A sample platitude: “We’ll always try to do what’s best for the team . . . Whatever those opportunities are, we’ll do the best we can with them.”
Comparing other coaches to Belichick is unfair, because he has won more games than any other active coach and he’s been practicing the art of saying meaningless things for decades. Mazzulla, by comparison, didn’t even know he would be the rookie coach of the Celtics until just days before the season began, because he stepped in when the previous coach got kicked out for an inappropriate relationship with a fellow employee.
So let’s look at what Mazzulla said last night, what he really meant, and how Belichick would non-say what Mazzulla non-said.
Mazzulla: “This was the first game of the playoffs that we didn’t play well. . . . It doesn’t come necessarily at the best time.”
What it means: “Now that the games really count, that’s when they decided to suck.”
What Belichick would say: “We’ll make adjustments so we can try to win the next two games.”
Mazzulla: “Our intentions were good. . . . I thought we tried to play hard. I thought we tried to play the right way, especially on the offensive end. It’s the first time [in the playoffs] that we didn’t play well. And we’ve got to regroup and get ready for the next game.”
What it means: “We tried. We failed. But we really were trying, really. We have to do better.”
What Belichick would say: “It’s all about execution. The team didn’t execute as well as it needed to win. So we need to execute better next game.”
Mazzulla: “I don’t think it was an effort thing, it was more detail and focus, . . . I didn’t think we got off to a great start. . . . I think we had the right intentions to play as hard as we could.’’
What it means: “Actually, we did try hard, you just couldn’t tell.”
What Belichick would say: “You saw the score. Draw your own conclusions.”
Mazzulla: “I thought we had the intentions of really, really wanting to win and trying to win it, and sometimes when that happens, it has a negative effect. I think we just have to play with a freer mind, take a deep breath, and regardless of the situation, we just have to be ready.”
What it means: “They wanted to win so much they psyched themselves out.”
What Belichick would say: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Muzzulla: “I thought we were getting relatively really good looks. We missed 10 wide-open threes in the first half that if they went in, we would have felt different about ourselves.”
What it means: “The problem was, they kept missing the basket.”
What Belichick would say: “Sometimes the ball goes in. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
[Regarding Mazzulla’s failure to call a timeout and set up a play at the end of the previous game] Mazzulla: “Hindsight’s 20/20. I should have called [a timeout] to help us get a two-for-one or get a couple more possessions. Obviously, with 14 seconds left, down 1, you want to get as many chances as you can. So definitely learned from that.’’
What it means: “It didn’t work out well, so sure, I wish I had it to do over again.”
What Belichick would say: “The players needed to do their jobs. So did the coaching staff. Obviously, the result was less than what we would hope for.”
In contrast to this, here’s a quote on the same decision from Cedric Maxwell, former Celtic and current radio announcer for Celtics games:
“Joe [Mazzulla] didn’t even say it was a mistake,’’ added Celtic legend Cedric Maxwell. “He said ‘in hindsight.’ Well everybody thinks differently in hindsight. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have married my first wife.’’
Now that’s a quote.