Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics

Boston Celtics

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Smart’s blunt assessment of his own head coach was shocking.

It’s rare you hear a player basically says his own coach deserves criticism, and not be entirely wrong, and not come off like an absolute nightmare of a teammate (maybe he did, depending on your perspective). But it was hard not to be taken aback by what Smart recently said about Joe Mazzulla – and it’s easy to see why the comments are relevant to the Eastern Conference Finals.

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  • Smart’s original comment came after the Celtics’ hard-fought Game 6 win over the Philadelphia 76ers, and within the context of praising Mazzulla’s adjustments for helping the team to victory. But even with full context, it reflected a player who considers himself at worst equal to a head coach with minimal experience in his post.

    “That just goes to show Joe is learning, just like all of us. I know he’s been killed a lot – rightfully so,” Smart said. “He needs to make some adjustments. And he did that. And that’s all you can ask for, just continue to be the best he can be. And it takes everybody. It’s a full team effort.”

    The reason that Mazzulla’s inexperience could come into play at points during the series is the head coach on the opposite sideline. Erik Spoelstra has long been considered one of the elite head coaches in the NBA, a big reason for the Miami Heat’s year-to-year competitiveness despite lesser rosters than other top east contenders.

    He can be expected to focus on slowing down Jayson Tatum on defense and forcing Mazzulla to adjust to what he’s doing. There will be moments where the coaching disparity shows itself in plain sight.

  • OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - JANUARY 03: Marcus Smart #36 of the Boston Celtics is restrained by head coach Joe Mazzulla of the Boston Celtics after being ejected during the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Paycom Center on January 03, 2023 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Ian Maule/Getty Images)

    Ian Maule/Getty Images

  • That doesn’t mean the Celtics will necessarily lose the series. But Spoelstra could very well coach circles around Mazzulla when you compare the two. And if Jimmy Butler plays his best basketball, the Heat could make this a closer series than the crazy betting odds would indicate.

    Smart acknowledged that it’ll come down to how the players themselves perform, which is always the No. 1 factor in the NBA. It’s just such a big coaching mismatch between Mazzulla and Spoelstra, that Miami could close the gap enough to not just get the series to a Game 7, but force the Celtics to execute at their best in the fourth quarter that night.

    “The team that we have, the group of guys that we have, we’re experienced,” Smart said. “And we’re the ones on the court. Joe can only do so much. Joe does a great job, his staff does a great job of putting us in the right position. We just gotta go out there and execute.

    “I know he takes a lot of the rap from us, but he’s not on the court. So we’re on the court and we have to be able to adjust, even if he’s not doing it to the standard that we want or everybody wants. We see what’s going on and we have to help him.”

  • It’s certainly not ideal that Smart and the Celtics’ players are in a position where they feel like they need to “help” their head coach do coach things. Mazzulla’s miscues over the course of the first two rounds have made it obvious that he’s a 34-year-old, first-year guy at the helm.

    So, the hope is that Mazzulla is ultimately not too much of a hindrance to the C’s winning a championship. If Tatum plays like he did in Game 7 against the 76ers for the rest of the playoffs, it may not matter who the coach is.

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    Matt Dolloff is a writer and podcaster for Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Yell at him on Twitter @mattdolloff and follow him on Instagram @realmattdolloff. Check out all of Matt’s content here.

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