The fatal flaw of Boston Celtics’ ‘Mazzulla ball’

Joe Mazzulla's offensive philosophy revolves around the three-pointe -- however, the Boston Celtics need to do a better job of scoring in the paint Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Mazzulla's offensive philosophy revolves around the three-pointe -- however, the Boston Celtics need to do a better job of scoring in the paint Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

When the Boston Celtics make their three-pointers, they tend to win games. When they come across a night where the three-ball just won’t fall, they struggle to see success and more often than not end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.

Under head coach Joe Mazzulla’s philosophy, or “Mazzulla ball”, the Celtics have proven to live and die by the three-point shot.

Thus far into the 2023-24 NBA season, Boston is second in the league for three-point attempts per game at 43.7–just 0.1 attempt per game behind the Dallas Mavericks. Through the team’s first nine games, they’ve shot anywhere from 28.2% to 57.1% from distance for an average of 36.1%. It should be no surprise that Boston’s pair of losses have come when their shooters can’t hit that average. The Celtics shot just 28.2% behind the arc in their loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves before struggling to a 31.9% clip the following game in a defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers.

There seems to be an obvious recipe for success under the C’s young coach.

Ever since Mazzulla took over at the helm, the Boston Celtics’ three-point attempts per game have skyrocketed. In his first season as head coach last year, Boston attempted an average of 41.8 threes per game, a staggering increase from their 37.0 average the year prior under Ime Udoka. In Brad Stevens’ last season as head coach in 2020-21, that number was 36.5. And just nine games into Mazzulla’s second season in charge, their average has already taken another bump.

Overreliance on the three has hurt the Boston Celtics before

The Celtics have been living and dying by its existence ever since he took over as head coach. It was one of the team’s primary letdowns in their collapse against the Miami Heat in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals. In agreement with the C’s nine-game sample size this season, Boston’s losses in that series were the games in which the team shot the worst from beyond the arc. After falling behind 3-0, the Celtics were yet to post a 3P% above 35% until their game four breakthrough when they reached the 40% mark. In their game five win, that number increased to 41% before plummeting to 21.4% in a blowout game seven loss. Why is Mazzulla so obsessed with the deep ball when it’s proven to be a double-edged sword?

In an exchange with the Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn last week, Mazzulla was very defensive regarding the amount of threes his team has taken this season.

When Mazzulla was chosen to step into the head coaching role last October, it didn’t take long for his value of the three-pointer to show. The team started firing away from three in one of the best offensive starts in NBA history.

“I love three-pointers,” Mazzulla said following a win last season. “I like math. I like open threes, I like space, and I think it’s a huge strength of our team.”

So the Boston Celtics kept firing from deep, putting a primary emphasis on out-shooting their opponent. As a result, they ranked 22nd in the league for points in the paint per game at 46.6 according to team This season is no different, currently slotted at 24th at a strikingly similar rate of 46.7. When the Celtics made their shots, they reaped the benefits. Mazzulla’s offensive structure allows for a plethora of open looks, providing his team with ample opportunity to make the opposition pay for leaving the wings open. However, when the three-ball isn’t an option, the Celtics are going to have to score more points in the paint to be a championship contender this season.

Adding Kristaps Porzingis should allow the Celtics to do just that. The length of Porzingis should only create more opportunities to diversify the scoring this season. However, it hasn’t played out that way just yet. Mazzulla and the coaching staff have seen Porzingis’s ability to shoot the three-pointer as a reason to shoot more threes. So far this season, Porzingis has attempted just 14 shots in the paint compared to his 43 attempts beyond the arc. While Porzingis has proved to be a consistent shooter, putting him in the paint will be a necessity for this team to get through tough shooting nights.

The Celtics have been able to get away with shooting the lights out against sub-par teams this season, such as their 155-104 thumping of the Indiana Pacers earlier this month.

Overall, the Boston Celtics have shot very well from three this season. Jayson Tatum (39.5%), Jaylen Brown (38.2%), Porzingis (39.5%), Derrick White (42.1%), and Jrue Holiday (33.3%) have all been able to find their groove beyond the arc. But, that success cannot be relied on all season. For the Celtics to hang Banner 18 from the TD Garden rafters under Mazzulla, “Mazzulla ball” needs to take on an entirely new meaning–a meaning that isn’t obsessed with the three-point shot.