Boston Celtics

‘He's a sicko:' Mazzulla's unique tactics are paying off for Celtics

The Celtics head coach prepared his team well to weather the Mavs' storm in Game 3.

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To say Joe Mazzulla is intense would be an understatement. But there's a method to his madness, and it's part of the reason why the Boston Celtics are one win away from raising Banner 18.

The Celtics held a 21-point lead over the Dallas Mavericks early in the fourth quarter in Game 3 of the 2024 NBA Finals on Wednesday night when the Mavs ripped off a 22-2 run to close the gap to one point. In years past, the C's may have let the wheels fall off completely en route to a confounding loss. Mazzulla's club buckled down, however, outscoring Dallas by six points over the final three-and-a-half minutes to pull out a 106-99 road victory and take a 3-0 series lead.

Boston undoubtedly benefited from superstar Luka Doncic fouling out with 4:12 remaining in the fourth. But the Celtics also benefited from the message Mazzulla has drilled into them all season: The more you succeed, the harder it is to win.

"If you've ever been in a fight with someone and you think you're about to beat them, you usually get sucker-punched," Mazzulla told reporters prior to Game 3 in a bit of foreshadowing. "The closer you are to beating them up, the closer you are to losing."

To prepare his team for these hard moments, Mazzulla has gone out of his way to celebrate adversity. When the Celtics blew a late 19-point lead over a six-minute span against the Sacramento Kings in early April, for example, Mazzulla described the fourth quarter as "fun" and "awesome" and "a perfect environment to execute."

So, Boston's players knew what to expect from their head coach Wednesday night when things got dicey in Game 3.

"I mean, he's probably so happy that it happened like that so he can just continue to tell us that," Celtics guard Derrick White said after the game while referencing Mazzulla's "the closer you are to winning, the closer you are to losing" mindset.

"But he just stays consistent. He just makes the right calls, and we just trust him completely."

But did Mazzulla actually enjoy watching his team blow a 21-point lead in an NBA Finals game?

"He's a sicko, so probably," White replied with a laugh.

As if to make his teammate's point, Celtics star Jayson Tatum explained in his postgame press conference how Mazzulla shows the team video clips of MMA fighters getting choked out to drive home the point of avoiding complacency.

"Joe does a great job of showing us clips and things from different sports," Tatum said. "He's a big UFC fan, and showing us fights of people that -- I don't know the terminology of UFC -- put them in a chokehold and s---, like they're about to tap out. You just see the guy or the woman who is winning relaxing because they feel like they are about to win, and then you give the other person life."

Tatum then referenced a quote that may sound familiar.

"Just trying to translate that to the game of basketball: The closer you are to winning, the closer they are to surviving," Tatum said. "Basically just trying to remind us in the group that we've still got a long way to go. We still have to play the right way. We've still got to win. They are not going to quit, and we should expect the best from them from here on out."

We're not sure how many other NBA coaches use UFC fights as motivation or refuse to sit with their back to the door at their local Dunkin', but it probably isn't many. Mazzulla's unique coaching style is clearly getting through to his players, though: The Celtics are a perfect 6-0 in "clutch" situations this postseason (score within five points in the final five minutes) and have thrived in the most challenging moments.

"I think Joe is a basketball genius," White added. "So whatever he says, I'm going to try to just do it to my highest capabilities."

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