For seven-plus minutes in the third quarter in Memphis, head coach Joe Mazzulla started experimenting. Maybe he was buying time for Boston’s back-to-back in Charlotte tomorrow. Maybe he was taking the training wheels off to see what he had with the second unit. Mor likely, it was a motivational move on a night he felt like the opposing team played harder. In a game that seesawed between convincing win to nailbiter, Mazzulla went away from his stars.
With 7:10 remaining and the Celtics up 3, Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, and Al Horford hockey-subbed for Jrue Holiday, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. Two minutes later, Neemias Queta replaced Kristaps Porzingis (noticeably leapfrogging Luke Kornet on the depth chart for the night) and played his first minutes of the regular season.
“I was looking to develop another identity, to be able to play basketball without those guys,” Mazzulla said after the game.
The Celtics had a three-point lead at halftime after getting it as high as 10 in the second half. And in their first five minutes of the second half, never really made an headway to dominate the depleted Grizzlies. Memphis’ physicality pushed Boston’s stars out of their sweet spots after the Celtics dominated the paint early. So, Mazzulla started pushing buttons.
“I didn’t think we were playing very well, so I wanted to find a lineup that could go on a run for us on the first night of a back-to-back,” Mazzulla said. “I didn’t want the minutes to be too high. I knew we were going to finish the game with them, so I just thought it was an opportunity to find some better rhythm, find a better lineup, and looked to go on a little bit of a run there.”
The Celtics bench plus White played the Grizzlies even, 11-to-11. Their only points from the field came from three-pointers from White, Hauser, and Pritchard. However, in the bigger context of the season and Mazzulla’s relationship with his players, the move to bench his starters speaks louder than the results on the floor.
“He’s a real competitor,” Porzingis said of an angry Mazzulla during a timeout. “He has an edge to him. He wants to win everything. He wants to be the best. He wants to push us to be the best. He definitely showed some emotion and we needed that in that moment.”
Thirteen games in the season, he’s gained the trust of his bench, whether that was holding a film session particularly with them or challenging a call during a blowout. In his post-game presser, he didn’t call out any of his stars specifically, but actions speak louder than words. Instead, he held them accountable and benched them.
“Every team needs to learn different things and go through different stuff. It’s easy to say you want to be a certain type of team and then it gets harder and harder to live that way,” Mazzulla said of his team’s lackadaisical performance despite the win. “The standard is very high for us. The guys in the locker room set a high standard for themselves and we’re not always going to meet it. I understand why a game is going to go like this and it’s not going to be all the time, but I don’t have to be happy about it.”