Celtics’ Smart: Mazzulla showing ability ‘to learn’

BOSTON — Celtics guard Marcus Smart provided further clarity on his pointed comments following Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, when he said coach Joe Mazzulla has “rightfully” faced criticism in his first year leading the team.

“Rightfully so in the fact that just like us when we go out there and we don’t play a good game, or we don’t do things we know we’re capable of and we should be doing, we get held accountable,” Smart said after practice Saturday afternoon. “Joe’s not on the court, so he gets held accountable differently than we do. And that’s with certain things that he might do or might not do.”

With their season on the line in Game 6, the Celtics made a critical adjustment by inserting Robert Williams III into the starting lineup and going back to the unit they used most of last season on the way to an appearance in the NBA Finals. Celtics players responded to the change with roaring approval, including Smart, who said he was ecstatic about the switch.

Smart used that lineup change to note that Mazzulla, the Celtics’ 34-year-old first-year coach, was still learning. But Smart continued to remain supportive of Mazzulla’s decision-making.

“At the end of the day it’s his decision,” Smart said. “If it works, we don’t say nothing. If it doesn’t, then obviously you have to look at it. That’s the fun of taking the criticism and moving on, being coachable, being able to learn. The great players, the great coaches, they’re able to learn.

“Even if they make a mistake, they don’t let it deter him. They keep going and they learn from it.”

Mazzulla has caught criticism throughout this second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers — for his timeout management at the end of Boston’s Game 4 loss and after the Celtics were routed at home in Game 5 to fall behind 3-2 in the series.

Smart said players have an open dialogue with Mazzulla and he allows them to come to him with suggestions. But even if several Celtics players were in favor of Williams’ insertion into the starting lineup, none of them said they had a meeting with Mazzulla to influence the change.

Williams is expected to remain in the starting lineup for Game 7 between the Celtics and Sixers on Sunday in Boston.

Asked what led to the switch, Mazzulla responded simply, “We were trailing 3-2 in the series.”

“We’re all about winning, whatever it takes,” Smart said. “There are things that we don’t see on the court that Joe sees, and there’s also things that we see that Joe doesn’t see. We’re here to help each other.”

Mazzulla was not the Celtics’ head coach last season when they won a pair of Game 7s — against the Milwaukee Bucks and Miami Heat — en route to the NBA Finals, but he was a member of Ime Udoka’s staff.

So Smart reiterated that although this is Mazzulla’s first time at the helm, he feels like the coach has been a part of the journey with the rest of this Boston core.

“He’s been here through a lot of our hard times and our struggles,” Smart said. “So now that he has the job it’s nothing new. Joe loves us and we love Joe. We believe in Joe and Joe believes in us.”

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