Celtics-Thunder: Mazzulla’s Risky Lineup Change Almost Pays Off

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Mazzulla’s bold lineup change nearly pays off in Celtics-Thunder originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Celtics couldn’t get a stop early in the fourth quarter of Tuesday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

So, head coach Joe Mazzulla subbed out arguably his best defender.

Mazzulla’s decision to remove Jrue Holiday at the 8:16 mark of the fourth quarter with his team trailing by 18 points raised a few eyebrows, as did his decision to keep backup guard Payton Pritchard on the floor. But Mazzulla needed to try something to slow down Thunder star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had 33 points and zero turnovers through the first three quarters.

Mazzulla’s gamble paid immediate dividends; the 6-foot-8 Jayson Tatum switched onto Gilgeous-Alexander and limited him to three points on 0-for-3 shooting in the final 12 minutes. Pritchard, meanwhile, played the entire fourth quarter, going scoreless on 0-for-2 shooting but making some key hustle plays (three assists, two steals) to help the Celtics cut the Thunder lead to as little as two points.

Boston’s comeback fell just short, as OKC held on for the 127-123 victory. But Mazzulla still deserves credit for pushing the right buttons and sparking Boston’s fourth-quarter comeback.

“Good ball pressure,” Mazzulla when asked about his decision to stick with Pritchard. “Good physicality. Just brought a level of physicality to the game defensively and spacing on offense. I thought his presence helped us get back into the game.”

Holiday has been a staple in the Celtics’ end-of-game lineups, entering Tuesday second on the team behind Tatum in fourth quarter minutes per game (9.2). But this simply wasn’t Holiday’s night, as he tallied just seven points on 2-of-8 shooting with three turnovers in his first game back from a sprained elbow.

It’s a testament to Boston’s depth that Mazzulla could insert Pritchard — who ranked eighth on the C’s in fourth quarter minutes (6.2 per game) entering Tuesday — and find success against one of the NBA’s best early-season teams. Between Holiday, Pritchard and the sneakily-clutch Derrick White (second on the Celtics in fourth-quarter scoring behind Tatum), Mazzulla has three guards who can hold their own in late-game situations.

There’s plenty the Celtics need to clean up after Tuesday’s loss in Oklahoma City, but the final 12 minutes brought a notable silver lining.

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