Why did Joe Mazzulla try to block Royce O’Neale’s shot? It’s more than ‘gamesmanship’

BOSTON — The play was technically over. Jaylen Brown had just picked off a pass in the backcourt and thrown down one of those dunks so vicious the opposing coach has to call timeout.

As Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla started walking onto the floor after Frank Vogel had called time on the other end with three minutes left in Boston’s 127-112 win over the Phoenix Suns, Mazzulla was near Royce O’Neale. The Suns forward had gotten an outlet pass and still wanted to get off a shot, even though the whistle had blown. He was 0-of-7 from the field, so maybe he was looking to find his stroke.

Mazzulla did something unusual for an NBA head coach. He tried to block O’Neale’s shot.

“I saw a guy going in to try to get a shot. He hadn’t made one, and I didn’t want him to feel good about himself going to the bench,” Mazzulla said. “Guys don’t shoot shots in front of our bench to go back to their bench to feel good about themselves. If I’m going to ask the guys to contest, staff has to do the same.”

“Wow,” said Suns broadcaster Ann Meyers Drysdale.

“You got a head coach who stepped on the floor trying to block a shot attempt of a player,” Suns announcer Kevin Ray responded. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that.”

It was a strange sight. Is it fair? Is a coach even allowed to do this? It’s unclear, but it was a simple decision for the Celtics coach, though not everyone was appreciative.

“I mean, he’s locked in. Most coaches would be like, ‘Ahh,’ but he’s locked in,” Celtics big man Xavier Tillman told The Athletic. “He was a player, so he knows about the rhythms and he knows that, especially with a shooter, like once they seen one go down and how it feels, it’s a wrap. So he knows.”

No silver linings. No slight reassurances. The Celtics’ job is to take away any sense of comfort from their opponent and compete from the moment they arrive at the arena to the minute they board the bus home. And they’ve been successful at it, clinching a playoff spot with a month left in the season. At 52-14, they’ve blown open a 9 1/2-game lead in the Eastern Conference that hasn’t been close for some time, and their 11.4 net rating is the fourth-best in NBA history.

“Late close, high hand. He was competing. That’s all that is,” Celtics guard Derrick White told The Athletic with a smile.

The only person who seemed surprised by Mazzulla was O’Neale. He’s seen plenty of players try to take away that little practice shot before. But a coach?

“I didn’t know what he was doing. I don’t know. … First time,” O’Neale said. “I was just wondering what he was doing. I feel like, ain’t it like a tech or something? I don’t know the rules on it.”

You can’t blame O’Neale for being dumbfounded. A lot of coaches buck convention. Mazzulla often does things that are initially befuddling.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Celtics forward Oshae Brissett told The Athletic. “But that’s Joe. Pull some stuff out of his bag every now and then.”

Even Mazzulla wasn’t sure if his players had seen it after the game.

“I’m not sure that they even know. They might know now, but I’m not sure they’ve known up until that point,” Mazzulla said. “But I just think it’s important. I think it’s a small detail of the game. It’s a little gamesmanship, but you can’t have guys going back to the bench feeling good about themselves.”

Mazzulla didn’t say whether he’d approve of an opposing coach doing the same to a Celtics player. 

“I think that’s like the third time that’s happened this year,” Brissett said. “I think Tone (assistant coach Tony Dobbins) did it one time. That’s funny. I’ve never seen a coach do that, but I’m here for it.”

Mazzulla said he was simply doing what he asks of his players.

“One of my biggest pet peeves is just thinking that a guy’s just going to get a free shot, and it’s just not the way it works,” Mazzulla said. “And if we’re going to hold our team to the standard, then hold the staff to the same thing. So there’s been times where we’ve missed it and I’ve held the staff accountable to it, and you’ve got to do the best job you can of not doing it.”

So everybody is on alert to jump in whenever they can. It’s a collective effort to uphold the message.

“Anybody can do it. It would only be a problem if a fan came to do it,” Brissett said. “But you’re not even supposed to shoot after the buzzer.”

Tillman is grateful to his coach for trying to stop the shot in the first place, because he doesn’t want to be the one to go up there and knock it out of the rim if it’s on target.

“Go up and block it? Nah, I don’t jump that high,” Tillman said. “I’m gonna hurt myself going up to get that, so I let it go.”

Just about everybody saw the moment, except Brown.

He was still screaming after his dunk when the Mazzulla contest went down.

“I didn’t see that. But that sounds like Joe Mazzulla,” Brown said. “I’ve definitely seen him do it in the past. If the guy keeps trying to shoot, Joe will just keep playing defense. He’ll take it as far as he needs to.”

As Jayson Tatum put it, that’s just Joe being Joe.

“That’s who Joe is. So when he did it, I wasn’t caught off guard,” Tatum said. “I expect him or one of the coaches to do that.”

The Celtics have done a lot of it. Per NBA Stats, they’re third in the league in 3-point percentage allowed. On 3-point shots where the defender is within 4 to 6 feet, often the shots where the defender is recovering hard to close out, the Celtics allow a league-best 32.4 percent.

Boston contests hard and smart. Few people in the league do it as well as White. So what did he think of Mazzulla’s attempt?

“I think Tony (Dobbins) had a better contest earlier in the season,” White said. “It was no Kornet Kontest, but he tried his best.”

That’s what the players say they appreciate about Mazzulla.

“Joe sets the tone just coming and being prepared first. He’s diligent and he allows us to be who we are,” Brown said. “So we’ve been very well-coached, we’ve been disciplined, and we haven’t had too many lapses this season. I feel like we’ve been a focused team, a smarter team. And some of that stuff, like, that’s coaching. That adds up.”

In the end, the post-buzzer brick, thanks to a Mazzulla contest and White goaltend, was O’Neale’s last shot of the evening.

That’s a small detail in a big win for the Celtics, their second victory over the Suns this week. What won them the game was Brown’s offensive dominance, defensive pressure and overall intensity.

Mazzulla had seen his star player press full-court to get the steal and seal the game. His contest was just a little extra.

“I wish I would’ve seen it, though,” Brown said.

(Photo: Chris Coduto / Getty Images)

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