Joe Mazzulla Must Disobey The NBA And Continue To Block Meaningless Shot Attempts

Joe Mazzulla is a good basketball coach. I take no pleasure in reporting this, not least because Mazzulla is the head coach of the Boston Celtics. Still, it’s important to be fair to the man, so that you will know that I am not doing biasisms when I say that Mazzulla—good coach! Knows the sport and teaches it well!—is also a humorless weirdo and a competitive zealot with whom I would absolutely never choose to socialize.

Mazzulla made news back on March 14 by contesting a shot taken by Royce O’Neale of the Phoenix Suns. This did not occur during the run of play, but I am struggling to decide whether that makes Mazzulla’s actions better or worse. Jaylen Brown had just thrown down a huge dunk over Grayson Allen inside the final three minutes of the fourth quarter, to put the Celtics up 18 points and effectively end the contest. Allen fired a quick inbounds pass ahead to O’Neale, near mid-court, but Suns head coach Frank Vogel had seen enough and signaled for a timeout, in order to empty his bench and bring to a close the competitive portion of the game. O’Neale, well after the whistle, squared his feet for a meaningless 32-footer; Mazzulla, a freak who is employed as a coach and not as a player, lunged at O’Neale to disrupt his attempt.

The Suns broadcast noted the odd behavior, and reporters asked Mazzulla about it after the game. This is where a normal person—one who is somewhat less committed to this ham-fisted performance of competitive intensity; one who does not take themselves one thousand times too seriously; one who under no circumstances would consider watching The Town four times per week—grins abashedly, or at least allows a twinkle of self-awareness to shine behind their eyes, and says something self-effacing about getting caught up in the spirit of the competition. Mazzulla, in the manner of one who has not only read and re-read The Art of War but then for good measure tore the pages out one by one and consumed them, said that doing this sort of weird try-hard stuff is part of the code of his Celtics regime.

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“I saw a guy going in to try to get a shot, and he hadn’t made one, and I didn’t want him to feel good about himself going to the bench,” explained Mazzulla, about an opposing role-player whose night was over at the end of a blowout. “That’s the bench rule: Guys don’t shoot shots in front of our bench to go back to their bench to feel good about themselves. If I’m gonna ask the guys to contest, the staff’s got to do the same.” A minute later another reporter tried to get Mazzulla to loosen up about this, by asking him if he knows what field goal percentage he’d held opponents to on these unofficial block attempts. “I don’t, no,” replied Mazzulla, at pains to appear as deadly serious as a surgeon who has just told you that your family member may not survive the night. It is Mazzulla’s belief that this action is “important,” because “you can’t have guys going back to their bench feeling good about themselves.”

Apart from just sort of looking losery and embarrassing, this was never a real great idea. Inside the NBA laughed about it but the panel’s former players agreed that the risk of injury to a player, however minor, was not worth whatever dubious competitive advantage Mazzulla hoped to take from acting like a frothing maniac in this particular way. This view appears to have been shared by whoever in the league office is in charge of these things. During an appearance last week on 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Zolak & Bertrand Show, Mazzulla revealed that someone from the NBA (he wouldn’t say who) told him that he and his coaches must immediately stop throwing themselves at opposing players. Mazzulla was asked whether he and his coaches had ever pissed anyone off with these shot contests, to which Mazzulla replied in that weird, high-strung, pugnacious sheepdog way of his that he hopes “we piss everybody off.” He then explained that following the O’Neale affair he’d been instructed in no uncertain terms to knock it off, and will. “We won’t be doing that anymore.”

The Celtics beat the shit out of their first two opponents following this radio appearance, running their winning streak to nine in a row and extending their lead atop the Eastern Conference to a whopping 11 games. But! Tuesday night, in Atlanta, the Celtics squandered a 30-point lead and lost, in what ESPN says was the biggest comeback for the Hawks since the league began recording play-by-play information. Mazzulla was off his game: The Hawks caught fire in the third quarter and Boston’s coach mostly just vibrated on the sideline, fidgeting with his hands and looking dyspeptic, declining to use a timeout until Atlanta’s 19–4 run brought the underhanded home team to within a single possession. He was even forced to stand powerlessly to the side at the third quarter buzzer and not contest an unofficial shot in front of Boston’s bench, as Dejounte Murray rebounded Vit Krejci’s half-court heave and flowed into a fun and acrobatic scooped floater (thank God it missed).

Have the Celtics lost their mojo? Because Mazzulla and his coaches are no longer permitted to uphold the team’s cultural standards of competitive lunacy? Did Boston lose to the Hawks because they let some guys feel good about themselves when they otherwise should’ve been wailing and rending their garments and thrashing around in the agony of professional humiliation? “It’s a good lesson that you let a team hang around, and they made some margin plays,” said Mazzulla, after the loss. “When you let guys hang around, allow different role players to make high-energy plays, no matter who you’re playing in the NBA, once it gets close, anything could happen.” The Celtics had a chance to step on the necks of an enemy—by defending better, yes, sure, but also by weirdly contesting their opponents’ freedom of movement during the portions of the evening that do not count on the scoreboard—and instead they let hope and dignity bloom in Atlanta’s otherwise wounded hearts. The fools! The weak-willed fools.

The Celtics and Hawks will run it back Thursday night, in Atlanta: To avoid back-to-back humiliations at the hands of a lousy play-in-grade opponent, Joe Mazzulla and his coaches must ignore the league’s directives and continue to block the shots of opposing players, not just during stoppages but if necessary during the very run of play. If Mazzulla is not willing to suffer a technical foul and possibly a suspension in order to swat Dylan Windler’s mid-commercial set-shot 18 rows into the stands, can he even claim to care at all about winning?

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