Clearly, the Celtics’ decision to go with Joe Mazzulla as coach has backfired

One of the many reasons why the Celtics are down 3-0 to the Heat: Their players, as shown through their recent words and pathetic actions, clearly do not believe their coach gives them a fighting chance.

Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla drawing on a board.
It is telling that Joe Mazzulla's players have had no qualms about publicly acknowledging his mistakes along the way. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

It’s not fair. It’s not fair at all.

But it is the reality, the harsh truth, and the only hope of salvaging this era of Celtics basketball.


Joe Mazzulla, one of the few Celtics who hasn’t quit, is the one who is going to have to go when this charade of a series, and the season with it, is mercifully over.

It’s too bad. It really is. Mazzulla is a son of Rhode Island and the son of a coach, an interesting character, a relentless worker, very easy to root for. His emergence, from the obscurity of the second row behind the Celtics bench, to, at age 34, the top job in the wake of the Ime Udoka scandal, is the kind of story that in the movies has a happy ending.


Unfortunately, this is not a movie, and this Celtics season, a once-promising mission to avenge last season’s Finals loss, is one inevitable loss from a miserable ending.

One of the many reasons why the Celtics are down 3-0 to the Heat: Their players, as shown through their recent words and pathetic actions, clearly do not believe their coach gives them a fighting chance.

It’s no excuse for why they turned into an entire roster of 2018 Kyrie Irvings and stopped fighting altogether in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals with the Miami Heat Sunday night.

But they are right. The quitters are right.

Mazzulla is the Peter McNeeley to Erik Spoelstra’s Mike Tyson. He doesn’t belong in this ring. He’s not ready for prime time. And in hindsight, he never should have been asked to be. The Celtics tried to develop a coach with a roster built to win now, and it backfired. No matter what other changes come in the offseason, they cannot allow themselves to be overmatched on the bench again.

So many mistakes have been made — by Mazzulla, by Brad Stevens, and by the players who were trusted to have a collective maturity that still remains absent.


Mazzulla’s tactical struggles — from burying Grant Williams to not going with double bigs until late in the previous series with the Sixers to the inability to take advantage of his roster depth (Sam Hauser made more than twice as many threes this year as Duncan Robinson) — are well-documented. It is telling that his players have had no qualms about publicly acknowledging his mistakes along the way.

It really does appear sometimes that Al Horford and Marcus Smart are more involved in running the huddle than Mazzulla is. That’s fine when it’s meant to give players some ownership. But it’s a bad look when they look like they’re doing the actual strategizing.

As for Stevens, he did a remarkable job building this roster, but he compounded his mistakes in deciding who would oversee it after Udoka’s suspension and eventual departure.

Why did Mazzulla get the job over Damon Stoudamire, whose status as an ex-player is something Jaylen Brown, to name one Celtic, previously acknowledged desiring in a coach? Why was a veteran assistant not added to the staff to aid a coach who had never led his own team at a level higher than NCAA Division 2? Did Stevens believe Mazzulla would be blunter with his players than he has been? They faced consequences for lackadaisical play under Udoka. There have been no consequences this season, which is one reason why the defensive effort has waned.


Spare me the talk of the 2004 Red Sox and those “don’t let us win tonight” mantras. Anything is not possible. Even if the Celtics do play with heart, knock down some shots, and the scorching Heat shooters go cold in Game 4, there is one thing that cannot be fixed now — their tactical disadvantage.

I’d love to believe that the Celtics will show some fight in Game 4 Tuesday night. But there is zero evidence that they will after their quittin’-time 128-102 loss to hardwood viper Jimmy Butler and the fearless Heat Sunday night. These Celtics are front-runners, devoid of mental toughness and apparently incapable of embarrassment.

That is particularly true of Brown, who is playing as though he were selected, oh, 48th Team All-NBA rather than second team. But save for Robert Williams, Grant Williams, and Derrick White, they all went down with a whimper, at least when they weren’t pursuing their true passion — whining to the officials while the Heat play five-on-four at the other end.

It’s been shocking since Game 3 ended — since before it ended, actually — to hear veteran NBA people throw around the word “quit” in regard to the Celtics. It absolutely is the right word, you bet it is, but it’s not one typically tossed around lightly. It’s a brutal, damning accusation, and yet Sunday night it was applied to these Celtics by a disgusted consensus.


Magic Johnson, on Twitter: “In my 44 years of being associated with the NBA I never thought I’d see a Boston Celtics team, a franchise with 17 Championships, quit.”

Isaiah Thomas, beloved former Celtic from a time when they played with the passion that the Heat do now, on Twitter: “Damn they really tappin out! Smh.”

Eddie House, a 2008 champ who refers to the Celtics as “we’’ but never dodges the truth, on NBC Sports Boston: “Let me say this. I feel like the Celtics have quit on their coach. Call it what we really see. I feel that those guys out there don’t believe in what their coach is doing. … I don’t believe they really believe in Joe Mazzulla.”

Charles Barkley buried them at halftime on TNT’s broadcast, then had this exchange with the Heat’s Gabe Vincent after the game.

Vincent, who hit six 3-pointers in Game 3, as many as all five Celtics starters combined: “They’ve got stars. They’re not going to quit.”

Barkley: “Clearly you didn’t watch the game tonight.”

Barkley also mentioned at one point that the Celtics have the “mental toughness of a flea.”

That must have had fleas worldwide wondering what they did to deserve such a disrespectful comparison.


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