MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Mazzulla just got his first loss of the season, but he was hyped. He loved it. He wanted to get right back out there.
The last undefeated team in the NBA was taken down by the giant slayers. The Minnesota Timberwolves defeated the Boston Celtics as they did the Denver Nuggets last week.
A surprisingly feisty defense with an emerging star who can go supernova. Sounds familiar, right? That used to be the Celtics back in the day, but they’re now the hunted and the Wolves were on the prowl Monday night.
“That was a lot of fun,” Mazzulla said after the Celtics undefeated season was snapped by a 114-109 overtime loss to the Timberwolves. “Very competitive and our opponents are always going to bring the best out of us. I thought we competed at a high level. I thought their defensive toughness outmatched our offensive toughness at times. I thought both teams played a really good game for (game six) of the year.”
This was something they were waiting for, a nail-biter with some defensive intensity and big-time shot making. It was a game where the Celtics’ bread and butter wasn’t working, the first real test of what to do when they can’t just clinically pick teams apart in crunch time.
The Wolves handed Kristaps Porziņģis his first loss in a Celtics uniform, but he seemed pretty upbeat in the locker room after the game. Usually, guys want to wait until they get dressed to talk to the media. But as he iced his knees and casually downed a yogurt parfait, he just looked up and asked if everybody wanted to talk.
He seemed relaxed, almost relieved, to see the loss come. Now they can remember they are mortal, the season is hard and teams are going to push them to their limits. A real competitor licks his chops at that rude awakening.
“No, I think it’s great,” Porziņģis said. “I think we needed — sometimes when you’re winning, it’s just keep kind of growing, growing, growing. But, I think when you really get better, either you win or you learn. We got to learn something tonight.”
He said they could have executed better at the end. They could have done things differently throughout the game.
“But it’s the losses like this that I think a team grows the most and we need this. Every team needs this,” Porziņģis said. “And we need it probably the most because we were undefeated so far and these guys are playing well. So credit to them and all the teams want to beat us. So that’s a big compliment to us.”
When coach Mazzulla went nine-deep into his rotation in the first quarter, it was foreshadowing the uphill battle ahead. This was going to be a game that would test their depth to contribute on both ends and ask their leaders to keep being proactive and locked in for 48 minutes against a team hell-bent on getting under their skin.
“Oh, we should expect that every night,” Mazzulla said. “I think that’s why I was so excited and I could do that again right now. I can do the whole thing over again.”
It’s a long night in the middle of a road trip, but Mazzulla looked like he couldn’t wait to get back on the sidelines, throw on some orange shades, and bark out defensive coverages on the fly.
“I think we’re understanding that our opponents are constantly going to get the best out of us and we have to embrace that and it’s a lot of fun,” Mazzulla said. “That game did not feel like the (sixth) game of the year on the road in Minnesota. That’s what we have to expect, night in and night out. There’s no better compliment than that.”
That was the one thing that just about everyone from the Celtics said after the game: that was a compliment. They were honored the Wolves wanted to kick their ass.
It was a reminder that building a winner is a long process and the season is going to feel really, really long.
“I’ve done it one year, so I know everything already and I got it all figured out,” Mazzulla said facetiously. “But no, again, you start to develop philosophies, you start to really hone in on exactly what you want to get done and you’re able to take the experiences you have from the year before and apply them. So I think I’m much more comfortable in that situation. Probably wouldn’t be as open-minded as I am about a mess like that last year as I am this year and that just comes with time.”
Things weren’t quite a mess, but there were some obvious mistakes that come when you’re playing out of rhythm. There was Jayson Tatum’s gorgeous spinning kick-out pass on the roll with 2:15 left in the fourth quarter to Jaylen Brown in the corner. Except Brown had slid up to the slot by that point and the pass went right to the Wolves’ bench. And, of course, Porziņģis was wide open in the corner in front of him.
“It’s easy to regret now, I threw that s— out of bounds,” Tatum said. “But if I threw it to the slot or if he was in the corner and he knocked the 3 down, that would’ve been a great play. So just gotta make the right read. It’s as simple as that and learn from it.”
Brown said the Wolves’ high pressure sped up the Celtics and kept them from getting to the positions they needed to get into their sets. It was evident in crunch time when the offense that has picked apart every defense it’s come across got bogged down for half of its possessions.
Before the game, Mazzulla talked about how great it was to see his team no longer grinding to a half trying to target switches in crunch time, then they just went out there and did it, right on cue.
“We’ve got to fight for that,” said Brown. “That was the first team to put that type of pressure on us and we got to be ready for the next one. So they did a good job of trying to speed us up and trying to force us to not be able to go to our initial actions and making us play from there.”
It didn’t help that Tatum and Brown both tried to take Jaden McDaniels, one of the league’s best wing defenders, one-on-one in the closing minutes of regulation. There wasn’t the same kind of patience to get into the two-man actions that have left teams guessing so far this year.
Tatum tried going after Anthony Edwards in overtime to draw his sixth foul, but Edwards is a tough isolation defender who needs to be put into ball screens to actually be exposed. They didn’t find the matchups they wanted.
“We got a bunch of stuff that we like to get to late game and we wasn’t able to get to a lot of it tonight,” Brown said. “Just from their pressure and then some of it was a little bit of a lack of poise with their pressure, with them putting that pressure on you made you feel like you just needed to go.”
Then when Edwards would target an Al Horford switch on the other end, Jrue Holiday and Brown didn’t aggressively help and recover for a loose double team like they’ve been doing all season. Mazzulla could have called a timeout by the time Edwards got the Wolves a 5-point lead with two minutes left. Tatum once again took a bad shot over McDaniels, then Edwards hit another great floater.
Tatum was talking smack to Edwards at the end of regulation and that just poured more gasoline on an inferno.
“I told him, ‘(Expletive), I’m comin’ again,’” Edwards said. “Luckily, he called me up for an iso and tried to iso me, and I’m like, ‘I play defense, I just got five fouls’. Know what I’m sayin? So I had to show him I could play defense. But he’s a great player, one of the best players in the league, for sure.”
Then finally the Celtics put Edwards into a high pick-and-roll, only for Brown to drive right at Rudy Gobert and take an impossible turnaround jumper, while his teammates failed to give him a passing outlet. Mazzulla said he wanted to save his two timeouts for the final 45 seconds, but the game slipped through their grasp. They fought back, but then McDaniels took on Porziņģis for one last bucket, the Celtics big tripped on Gobert’s foot, and McDaniels buried the pull-up jumper as Porziņģis stumbled to the floor.
ANT EDWARDS HAS TAKEN OVER IN OT.
HE HAS 36 PTS 😱
Celtics-Timberwolves | Live on the NBA App
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— NBA (@NBA) November 7, 2023
Boston didn’t play up to its principles and standards. The Celtics were just a few slight mistakes and mishaps away from surviving yet again. Maybe it’s just a blessing in disguise.
“What, 75 games (left)? I think there will be a lot of blessings in disguise for the rest of the season,” Mazzulla said. “We’re only in November. But for tonight, it’s just a good opportunity to figure out what we did well and where we can get better.”
The Celtics were undefeated, but they weren’t great. They were finding ways to win with their newfound top-end talent, but they weren’t playing beautiful basketball for 48 minutes. They finally ran into someone who could push them all night and hit the big shots while they were missing. Welcome back to reality.
They’ve got 75 games left to figure out how to be a team that can win when they aren’t getting the looks they want or the stops they need. But that’s the fun part.
(Photo of Jayson Tatum going to the basket against the Timberwolves: Bruce Kluckhohn / USA Today)