Heat-Celtics coaching matchup as intriguing as the action on court

The last Eastern Conference Finals pairing between the Heat and Celtics will be a matchup that will ultimately pit stars like Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum against each other.

But Miami’s 123-116 win in Game 1 also showed how the tactical battle between rookie coach Joe Mazzulla and veteran counterpart Erik Spoelstra will also play a big factor.

The Celtics dominated the first two quarters Wednesday night before being outscored 46-25 in the third period, the most points they’ve allowed in any playoff quarter in the last 25 years. It put Boston in a 103-91 hole it never overcame.

The game-changing offense also included a 13-1 Heat run to help tie the game in which Mazzulla made the decision not to call a timeout, which has become a recurring theme for him this season because of his preference to leave the Celtics. play through difficult patches.

“I don’t think it’s a challenge in the postseason, I think it’s human nature,” Mazzulla said Thursday when asked about his team’s tendencies to give up leads this season. “So how do you come out of that and win it and just understand your environment, understand your opponent? It’s hard to do, but what we’re trying to do is very difficult.”

After back-to-back series in which Boston has fallen into 0-1 holes, it’s put the spotlight back on the 34-year-old, who landed his dream job in the preseason and is now trying to find new ways to motivate a team with championship expectations.

Miami’s Spoelstra knows all too well what it’s like to be in that position.

Spoelstra, 52, rose through the ranks in the Heat organization, rising from video coordinator to assistant head coach at age 38, then successfully balanced the pressure of turning a team led by All-Stars LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on back-to-back NBA champions.

Spoelstra admitted that he initially doubted himself, recalling how he was accosted by Knicks fans in his first game in New York who asked him, “if I had stayed up past the time to go to to sleep”.

“I was beating myself up a little bit,” Spoelstra said of his first season.

In the same way, Mazzulla has not hidden that he has learned something with every game he has coached.

That includes the playoffs. During the last series, Mazzulla listened to pleas from the Celtics’ veteran leaders to reinsert Robert Williams III into the starting lineup. He also apologized to the team for not calling a timeout before its final possession in the Game 4 overtime loss to Philadelphia.

“He trusts us. At the end of the day, Joe trusts us,” Celtics guard Malcolm Brogdon said.

That humility is why Spoelstra respects what Mazzulla has done so far, going through the challenges of an NBA season.

“I think just going through the fire, going through the experiences,” Spoelstra said. “Every situation is different. So, I don’t know what it’s like in this locker room, this building. But I have a lot of respect for Joe. We have a lot of friends in common. We saw each other a lot in the [Florida] bubble … It seemed like we were always running into each other all the time.”

And now they have met each other in three of the last four postseasons.

Although his team is an underdog this time around, as one of the league’s oldest head coaches, Spoelstra, is proving once again how good he is at bringing out the best in his players.

Despite a slow start in Game 1, Spoelstra let Butler set the tone throughout, including relying on his star to guard Tatum, despite Butler dealing with an ankle problem that slowed him in the previous round against New York .

It increased the amount of energy Tatum had to exert and contributed to him not taking a field goal in the fourth quarter, despite a 30-point night.

It’s part of what has become the culture of the Heat under Spoelstra, teams led by stars but dependent on the collective for ultimate success.

He said Butler epitomizes that.

“On the ball, off the ball, all that stuff,” Spoelstra said. “It settled us down offensively. That’s a big part of us not turning the ball over, it’s just having a place where you can throw the ball and be a little more settled.”

That said, Spoelstra expects Boston to respond in Game 2 on Friday. Not just because of the players they have on the court, but because of the guy who patrols the sideline.

Spoelstra said he can tell Mazzulla has already grown as a coach.

“You go through it, the experience,” Spoelstra said. “That’s the best. The most valuable. What he’s done this year is not easy. You definitely have to respect that.”

Report from The Associated Press.

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