BOSTON — Billy Donovan gave his post-game press conference as roars erupted across the hallway from the Celtics’ press room watching OG Anunoby hit a last-second three to solidify the Nets’ win by a small enough margin. Joe Mazzulla simultaneously finished explaining his thought process on going for the In-Season Tournament, arriving at his media availabilities with Brooklyn and Toronto still locked in a one-possession game. Reporters carried laptops and phones with the game and scores streaming.
“Without worrying about it, we advanced,” Mazzulla said after being told the result of Nets-Raptors. “Think about what the process does. Process over results.”
Part of the appeal of Tuesday’s tournament triumph and overcoming the 22-point differential deficit to the Magic while passing the Nets to secure Group C stemmed from the uncertainty over whether Mazzulla would run up the score. He professed zero obligation pre-game to cross the threshold.
But after an unnamed assistant told Mazzulla in the fourth quarter that the Nets led by a possession while Boston led by 29 with 7:34 to go. Jrue Holiday, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown headed to the scorer’s table to set up an unprecedented scene.
Normally, that situation would set up early exits from the arena, recaps submitted to editors before the buzzer, and garbage time lineups playing between Gino intermissions. Instead, Donovan and Mazzulla held a spirited discussion at half court over Boston deciding to hack Andre Drummond. Holiday pushed Boston’s lead to 35 while the Knicks’ lead hovered around 20 on the Hornets. The calculators came out.
Celtics +32, Knicks +38, wait.
The Bucks fell behind the Heat. What if they’re in the wild card mix?
Boston never thought about that second scenario that never came into play. Players, uninformed by Mazzulla, mostly entered with that 23-point figure in their head.
“We pretty much already knew,” Holiday said. “We had heard the score of the Toronto-Brooklyn game. We saw it up on the screen and stuff. I think we kind of knew, everybody individually trying to do the math in their head, which even after the game got a little confusing. That’s why I’m not into the mathematics of it. I play basketball.”
Holiday and Brown complained about the point differential rule after the game despite embracing it on the floor. Mazzulla, as promised, staked out the hallway between locker rooms to chat with Donovan after their exchange, both coaches acknowledging the other’s perspective while Bulls officials alerted Drummond of Mazzulla’s desire to speak with him. Drummond, after getting dressed, declined to comment on the fouling decision with reporters, politely saying he’d only talk about basketball.
Disdain toward and debate over the rules of the tournament will continue into next summer, but subtle tensions, difficult strategic decisions and fan interest through the buzzer made Tuesday an all-time unique event at the Garden. It followed a Warriors-Timberwolves fight earlier in the tournament, incidents late in games where teams remained locked-in where they rarely would otherwise — like the Magic did on Friday. The Celtics made up for that effort with a renewed focus, Brown pushing the ball in transition from Holiday and Derrick White to expand a lead to 19. Boston’s bench stayed standing watching the Celtics maximize possessions before halftime. The Celtics managed the margin like a playoff game.
“I took in all the information. I didn’t handle it emotionally and I sat and stored it in whatever part of my brain that stores information,” Mazzulla said. “I waited to see if I was going to need it or not. I don’t know going into a game that we’re gonna be up 23, we could be down 15 because that’s a distraction, because we’re trying to be up 23, and you’re gonna be like, was your team distracted by the 23-point lead? … our team was focused on winning.”
Clunkiness remained. Many fans, never mind media, struggled to sort through the scenarios on the final day of group play. Many arrived wondering what the tournament meant in general.
The $500,000 in winnings, which Luke Kornet joked would pay off his mortgage, doesn’t resonate with casual fans. The inaugural trophy doesn’t mean anything yet. Teams weighed going for it with health — Brown’s dive to the floor with two minutes left was enough for Mazzulla as his bench emptied.
Until then though, for all the lamenting post-game, the Celtics played hard. They moved the ball better than they had all year with 36 assists, positioning Al Horford as an inside-out initiator. Sam Hauser chased down and dunked a Jayson Tatum miss. Tatum and Brown crossed the 23-point line with back-to-back scores in the second. White stole a pass in the back court and found Tatum immediately to go up 27. Mazzulla called timeout when Chicago cut the lead to 30. He challenged the players to focus on areas where they recently struggled, the Celtics seemed to thrive running up a score. Not, they’re on to Indiana.
“Once it got to that and you started playing the math game, and your possessions are 0.0 points per possession because they missed two free throws, that gets me excited,” Mazzulla said. “It’s not that I don’t think the In-Season Tournament is fun or it’s important, but there’s a process. You go back to the Orlando game, are we gonna rebound just because it’s an (IST) game? I don’t want our guys to have that type of mindset … we have to rebound every game … you’re at 30, what’d you want to do? I want to get stops … and I apologized to Andre Drummond for doing that, but it gave us the best chance considering the circumstances.”