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Joe Mazzulla could be one-and-done as Boston Celtics head coach

Rarely do we see a performance in the NBA Playoffs reverberate like what happened with Joe Mazzulla and the Boston Celtics in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Finals series against the Miami Heat Sunday evening.

After losing each of their first two games in Boston, the defending conference champs were blown out in South Beach. It wasn’t close throughout a majority of the game with Miami owning a 33-point lead in the third quarter.

The Celtics’ lifeless performance was an afront to their playoff history, something NBA legend and former rival Magic Johnson pointed out following Sunday’s 26-point loss:

“In my 44 years of being associated with the NBA I never thought I’d see a Boston Celtics team, a franchise with 17 Championships, quit. I know Celtics fans all over the world must be disgusted and devastated. The Miami Heat blew them out 128-102 in Game 3,” Johnson wrote on social media.

As the fourth quarter started with Boston down by 30, Joe Mazzulla pulled the plug. He emptied out the Celtics’ bench, making stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown spectators for the remainder of the game. Following the disastrous loss, it could be setting in that Mazzulla is in over his head and could be one-and-done in Boston.

“There is a wave of anger from New England and a rising expectation elsewhere Mazzulla will pay the price for this 0-3 hole the Celtics find themselves in,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst after the Boston Celtics’ Game 3 loss.

After the performance we saw from the Celtics Sunday night, it’s hard to imagine them being able to get up and avoid elimination in Game 4 come Tuesday evening. A sweep at the hands of an eighth seed when they entered the conference finals as odds-on favorites to win the NBA title would indeed be the worst-case scenario. Devastating. The potential precursor to larger moves, both on the bench and from a roster standpoint.

Related: Top NBA head coach candidates of 2023

Joe Mazzulla taks full responsibility, but is it enough?

boston celtics to fire joe mazzulla?
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

“I just didn’t have them ready to play,” Mazzulla told reporters after the game.

Anyone who watched this came could come to the very same conclusion. You didn’t need to be in the stands like the Celtics’ brass to understand that Mazzulla was vastly outcoached by Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat.

Taking responsibility is one thing. Showing team president Brad Stevens that his faith in you is justified is a completely different thing.

The suspension and ultimate ousting of head coach Ime Udoka amid a scandal ahead of the 2022-23 season changed the narrative in Boston. These Celtics were just two wins away from the NBA title against the Golden State Warriors just months before the scandal broke.

Shortly after naming Joe Mazzulla the interim coach in the wake of Udoka’s suspension, it became clear that the latter would never return to the Celtics’ bench. That’s when Boston named Mazzulla the full-time head coach.

What followed was an ofentimes spectacular regular season in which Boston won 57 games. But everything has changed in the playoff atmosphere. It took six games for Boston to dispose of the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. It took an otherworldly 51-point performance from Tatum in Game 7 of the conference semifinals against Philadelphia for Boston to advance.

Now in a 3-0 series hole following Sunday’s franchise-altering performance, the Celtics’ future will come into question this summer.

And based on the head coaches we’ve seen fired over the past couple weeks, it doesn’t seem to be a foregone conclusion that Mazzulla will be back with the Celtics next season.

After all, two recent championship head coaches in Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors) and Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks) were fired. Each has a resume that Mazzulla just can’t stack up against.

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