Play in crunch time could be considered the biggest Achilles’ heel last season for the Boston Celtics.

On Wednesday night in New York, history looked set to repeat itself for the new-look Boston squad midway through the fourth quarter. The Celtics had blown a 12-point first-half lead, falling behind 99-93 with just under four minutes remaining after a quick 6-0 Knicks’ run. Boston’s offense was floundering without the 3-point shot falling as Coach Joe Mazzulla called timeout with 4:10 left in the game.

It’s tough to envision last year’s Celtics turning the tide in this spot given their late game offensive woes. The equation changed this time, as the Celtics closed out the game with a 15-5 run to rally for a 108-104 win.

There’s no underplaying the obvious in the win. Kristaps Porzingis (30 points) made a huge impact late with his shotmaking, punishing defenses for doubling Jayson Tatum by scoring eight points in the final three minutes.

However, there were other welcome changes too when it came to coaching that helped this group turn the tide when it mattered most. Mazzulla has talked a lot this preseason about his evolving philosophy, and some of those changes were on display in crunch time Wednesday night, paving the way for the win.

Derrick White got to initiate the offense


After endless groans from observers last season about White sitting on the bench in countless crunch-time moments, there was no doubt he would be on the floor at the end of games this year. Mazzulla went beyond that, though, with his versatile guard, letting him initiate multiple possessions offensively in crunch time. The results were positive as White stopped a 6-0 Knicks run with a pair of free throws coming out of the four-minute timeout, then got the ball to Tatum in a good spot next time down the floor, which led to a Jrue Holiday backcut layup.

Boston was far too predictable last year in these spots, but getting White involved led to better opportunities and less predictability than Tatum dribbling the ball into trouble or running a two-man game with Marcus Smart.

A savvy decision and critical sub

This will show up as a simple line in the box score, but it may have been a game-saving decision for the Celtics on Wednesday night. Boston called a timeout with Jayson Tatum facing a double team in the backcourt while clinging to a 106-104 lead with 12 seconds left. Mazzulla wisely elected to use both of his remaining timeouts to advance the ball past half court to avoid risking an 8-second violation (Boston had already used five seconds before the timeout).

However, it was Mazzulla’s sub during the timeout that ended up being the game-clincher. Despite Porzingis carrying the Celtics offensively down the stretch, Mazzulla elected to pull him coming out of the timeout to get the speedy Payton Pritchard on the floor. Payton is also an elite free-throw shooter. The intriguing choice paid off immediately as Boston was well covered out of the timeout, with Tatum having no timeouts left to use if needed. Luckily, Pritchard came off his initial action and cut to open space, giving Tatum an option before a 5-second violation was called.

It was great patience from Tatum and terrific instinct from Pritchard, who hit both his free throws to put Boston up four points. Mazzulla also deserves credit for having him in the game. He rarely showed a willingness to go deeper into his bench for situational spots last year in crunch time, perhaps at the risk of ruffling feathers. No such problem in year two. His evolution and instincts in this spot paid off in a major way.


Staying away from Jaylen Brown late

It was a forgettable season debut for Jaylen Brown (11 points on 4-of-11 shooting), as he struggled to find his rhythm around his new teammates. Mazzulla wasn’t going to bench one of his stars, obviously, in the opener, but it likely wasn’t a coincidence that Brown did not touch the ball much during crunch time. It wasn’t his night, and the team was intent in the half court on working actions around Porzingis, White and Tatum, who jumpstarted the 15-5 run collectively in the final four minutes of the game. There will be a learning curve for this group to play off each other, but the ball was in the right people’s hands at the end of this game. That was often not the case last year.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, everything in a season opener gets overanalyzed. However, the fact the Celtics won a game when they only shot 30 percent from 3-point range is quite noteworthy. Execution in crunch time was a big key, and that included some important strides from Mazzulla, who has already shown a better willingness to adapt than we saw for much of last season.

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