BOSTON — The NBA playoffs aren’t the most intense, scrutinized and reputation-making or altering time of the year for just the players. Their coaches are right there with them, rising or potentially falling with the outcomes of series. Criticism or praise comes even more quickly, game to game, half to half, play to play.
Doc Rivers and Joe Mazzulla are at nearly opposite ends of any career scale for coaches, but they’re sitting almost cheek to cheek on respective hot seats in the postseason. The pressures under which they’re working this Eastern Conference semifinals series between the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics are different, yet essentially equal.
Win? Survive at least for another round. Lose? Doesn’t matter what Giannis Antetokounmpo recently said about “failure,” the carping will intensify and the urgency for one of their bosses to, y’know, do something may start to beat like a war drum.
The fact that the series is tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 Tuesday night at TD Garden (7:30 ET, TNT) mostly buys both men the teensiest of time. Neither will have gotten swept, though one of them definitely will not advance and thus, will fall short of heavy expectations. Again (Rivers) or for the first time (Mazzulla).
Different pathways for Rivers, Mazzulla
Their resumes and paths hardly could be more different. A product of Chicago’s serious hoops scene, highly touted as a high school prospect and nicknamed for Hall of Famer Julius “The Doctor” Erving, Rivers played for four NBA teams over 13 seasons. He was an All-Star guard with Atlanta in 1987-88, eventually ranking in the top 75 all-time in assists and steals. He went into television work upon retirement and took over as the Orlando Magic’s coach 38 months after his final game as a player.
That 1999-2000 season, Rivers’ first as a coach, he was voted NBA Coach of the Year. He’s into his 24th season now after working for the Magic, Celtics, Clippers and now the Sixers. With a 1,097-763 (.590) regular-season record, he ranks ninth all-time in victories — one fewer than Larry Brown and 159 more than Red Auerbach.
His 110-102 (.519) playoff mark includes two conference titles and one Finals triumph (2008 with Boston). That’s as good as or better than four of the men ahead of him on the victories list: Lenny Wilkens (two conference titles, one championship), Jerry Sloan (two conference titles), George Karl (one conference title) and Don Nelson (none of either). As part of the league’s big 75th anniversary celebration last season, Rivers, 61, was named one of the Top 15 Coaches.
Then there’s Mazzulla, 34, wrapping up his first season directing the Celtics. A native of Rhode Island, he played in college at West Virginia, where an injury one season had him exploring film sessions and other coaching duties out of curiosity. He lived in a trailer park after college, according to Sports Illustrated, as he grabbed a low rung in the coaching ranks.
He was an assistant at Glenville State and then Fairmont State in Division II, leaving for a spot on the bench with the NBA G League’s Maine Red Claws, the Celtics’ affiliate. Fairmont State called him back to be its coach, and after two seasons Mazzulla joined Brad Stevens’ staff in Boston. He stayed when Stevens stepped upstairs as president of basketball operations in 2021, then got thrust into his current job when Ime Udoka was removed last fall on the eve of training camp.
Immediately, Mazzulla faced expectations. His limited experience had some fans concerned, plus the Celtics had reached the 2022 NBA Finals and were back essentially intact. Anything less than a return trip could be deemed a flop. There were in-season hiccups as well, like losing five of six in a December run and three in a row in January, and Mazzulla’s reluctance to call timeouts as if he were Phil Jackson letting Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen figure things out.
Still, Mazzulla guided the Celtics to a 57-25 finish — six games better than under Udoka last season. He finished third in Coach of the Year balloting. That victory total is tied for 200th most among all NBA coaches, but already has him ahead of peers Will Hardy, Darvin Ham and Jamahl Mosley. In small sample size theater, he ranks third all-time in regular season winning percentage (.695) and 15th in the playoffs (.600, 6-4).
In “what-have-you-done-for-us-lately?” terms, though, not nearly so high.
‘Playoffs are where coaches are made’
Rivers hasn’t taken a team to the Finals since 2010. Mazzulla has yet to show he can do it even once. With Boston, he inherited a far superior roster than Rivers did in Orlando, something Rivers touched on when asked earlier this round about his Celtics counterpart.
“Joe has far more pressure than I did my first year in the playoffs,” Rivers said. “He’s doing a fantastic job. He’s taking a team that went to the Finals last year. … He’s going to be the guy, just like me and just like all of us coaches, that you look at when anything goes wrong. And Joe’s never experienced that, but that’s just the way it is.”
Already it has happened twice in the series. In the opener, Mazzulla’s preferred switching defense left big man Al Horford along to guard James Harden out top on what became Harden’s game-winner.
In Game 4 Sunday, Boston trailed by a single point with 19 seconds left in overtime. Mazzulla had two timeouts left but called none. His Celtics ran their offense too slowly, such that Marcus Smart’s 3-point basket — remember, they trailed only by a point — came after the game’s final horn.
Mazzulla simmered after the heat he took from the Game 1 finish and chided reporters once Boston bounced back to win Game 2. His approach after Sunday’s loss was different — this time he acknowledged the mistake of not using a timeout to at least speed up the final play, perhaps to cut an extra possession into the time remaining. Even if it had allowed Rivers to sub in some better defenders.
“At the end of overtime, you know, hindsight’s 20/20, I should have called it to help us get a 2-for-1 or get a couple more possessions,” Mazzulla said. “And so obviously, with 14 seconds left, down one, you want to get as many chances as you can. So I’ll definitely learn from this.”
Rivers faces a different type of pressure. He is one of only six active NBA coaches to have led his team to a ring. But he’s also a guy known for having 3-1 series leads slip away: once with Orlando in 2003 and twice with the Clippers (’15 and ’20). The details of those setbacks, some defensible, get lost over time while the broad strokes remain.
Getting Kia MVP Joel Embiid back with Harden and a healthy supporting cast leaves less wiggle room for the Sixers and their coach, now that Rivers and Mazzulla are locked into a tight best-of-three elimination contest.
“It’s a big moment,” Smart said earlier in the series. “Playoffs are where coaches are made for a lot of people.”
Made and re-made.
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