The Boston Celtics aren't totally out just yet, but heading into Game 4 against the Miami Heat, it feels like they are almost certainly set to be sent on vacation by the Heat on Tuesday night. While the stakes are considerably lower for the C's given the corner they have backed themselves into, this is actually an extremely important game for two of Boston's most important members in Jaylen Brown and Joe Mazzulla.
The Celtics Game 3 loss wasn't your typical playoff defeat. Boston was favored entering this series against Miami, and after falling down 2-0 in the series, they were expected to respond in a big way in Game 3. That response never developed, though, and at the center of the team's struggles were Brown and Mazzulla.
It's wild how the Celtics future outlook has completely flipped on its head in the span of just over a week, but that's how fickle sports can be. And in the process, Brown and Mazzulla have both put massive targets on their back, not just for fans, but for the organization as potential scapegoats for Boston's postseason failure. In a sense, both guys could be fighting for their lives with the Celtics in a seemingly meaningless Game 4.
Why Game 4 is so important for Jaylen Brown and Joe Mazzulla
For the most part, the Celtics fate in this series against the Heat is sealed. They are down in a 3-0 series hole that no team in NBA history has ever come back from, and there's been literally nothing to suggest that they have any shot of putting together such a comeback against the Heat. They might be able to win Game 4, but that's not really the biggest concern at this point for the Celtics.
All eyes are going to be on Brown and Mazzulla in Game 4. Brown, who was probably the Celtics most consistent source of scoring prior to this series, has been miserable through three games (16.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, 37.7 FG%, 10 3P%) and was the first guy to give up when the C's fell behind early against the Heat. Even if Boston loses this game, Brown needs to have a strong game, or else it's going to be another long offseason of trade rumors.
For Mazzulla, though, he will be looking to get anything out of this team he can in Game 4. For his sake, a win would be great. To the public eye, it appears as if Mazzulla has completely lost the locker room, and doesn't have the gusto required to lead a championship contender just yet. Again, winning Game 4 means very little in the grand scheme of things, but it may just save Mazzulla his job.
Game 4 will likely determine whether or not the Celtics 26-point Game 3 defeat is a franchise defining result. If they can show the fight they were lacking in Game 3 and send this series back to TD Garden for Game 5, the optics won't be nearly as negative as they currently are. Losing to Miami is obviously going to be a less than desirable outcome, but the Heat are doing their very best to make sure this is a punch Boston doesn't get back up from.
That starts with the two people this article is about in Brown and Mazzulla. Brown has looked lifeless throughout this series for no reason at all. He's missing tons of shots he would normally hit, and rather than try to find a way to impact the game elsewhere, he's sulked on defense while continuing to force looks on offense. Brown has matchups he should be taking advantage of, but for whatever reason, he hasn't been interested in the slightest in doing so.
This is where Mazzulla's poor coaching rears its ugly head again. If you have a star player struggling to produce, draw up some designed plays to get him easy looks. Instead, Mazzulla has opted to run pretty much everything through Jayson Tatum, who is getting double-teamed relentlessly right now, settling for tough pick-and-roll sets or Boston's favorite isolation style basketball that bogs down their offense.
Running the offense through Brown may seem ludicrous given his play so far in this series, but it may be what opens things up for the C's. The Heat aren't going to double-team Brown, which would open up more space for everyone involved in pick-and-roll actions, while also giving Tatum more space to operate off the ball. Brown would have to be a willing passer, but it's worth remembering that the Celtics best half of basketball in this series came when Marcus Smart picked apart the Heat by racking up ten assists in the first half of Game 1.
But again, the question comes back to Mazzulla. Does he have the wherewithal to note this and make the necessary changes? So far, he's looked like Sean McVay going up against Bill Belichick when the New England Patriots held the high-powered Los Angeles Rams offense to just three points in Super Bowl LIII. Banking on him to make these sorts of changes isn't exactly a good bet.
Mazzulla's inability to adapt may force Brown to take matters into his own hands. Your coach can't make you go out and give 100 percent effort even when your shots aren't falling. This is for a trip to the NBA Finals as a quick reminder; the conversation of effort should not be something that is even discussed at this point of the season, but that's where we are with this Celtics squad unfortunately.
The Celtics Game 3 defeat all but ended this series, but there's still a lot on the line in Game 4. Boston is going to have to make some massive changes this offseason one way or another, and it seems like those decisions are either to fire Mazzulla or trade Brown. These guys will be fighting to remain a part of this team moving forward in Game 4. To this point, they haven't shown much fight, and this do-or-die contest will tell us everything we need to know about whether these two are the right fits for the C's moving forward.