Celtics’ emphasis on closing out quarters better shows up in win against Pistons

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The Boston Celtics have all but wrapped up the top seed in the Eastern Conference. In all likelihood, nothing they do over the rest of the regular season will impact their playoff positioning. While winning their last eight games, they have still competed like they have something to play for.

And maybe they do: the details.

After they pounded the Detroit Pistons on Friday night 129-102, Joe Mazzulla told reporters he stressed closing out quarters better after his team botched one such scenario while beating the Pistons earlier this week.

“The last time we played them, they went on a 7-0 run to end the first quarter partly because we didn’t take the last shot,” Mazzulla told reporters in Detroit. “It was another point of emphasis for today.”

Mazzulla must have been pleased about the way his team handled end-of-quarter situations Friday. Even before Payton Pritchard ended the first quarter with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer, some ideal Celtics clock management set up the opportunity. After the Pistons drilled a triple with 33.9 seconds left in the quarter, the Celtics didn’t have much time to create one of Mazzulla’s beloved two-for-one chances. They did it anyway.

Oshae Brissett rolled the inbounds pass so Pritchard could preserve as much time as possible. After Pritchard finally scooped up the ball, he attacked quickly to keep alive hopes of a possible two-for-one. Pritchard drew a second defender and pitched a pass back to the trailing Brissett, who pump faked at the 3-point arc before sweeping through to drive for a dunk attempt. Less than five seconds after the inbounds pass, Brissett drew a foul while soaring to the rim. He made one of two free throws with 29.1 seconds left in the quarter, giving the Celtics just enough time to produce another shot attempt later in the period. When they forced a shot-clock violation with 4.1 seconds left, the timing gave Pritchard just enough runway to race to the other end of the court and splash home a pull-up 3-pointer. The quick 4-0 spurt cut a six-point Boston deficit to 34-32.

Sure, you might be thinking to yourself, but the Celtics should be more poised and mature than the Pistons. That would be a fair point, but these are the details that could matter down the road regardless of the competition level now. Mazzulla wants the Celtics to win the small battles of game management that pop up over 48 minutes. He has brought up the finishes to quarters several times recently, suggesting it’s something he tracks very closely.

“That game management is something the guys have really grown at,” Mazzulla said before a win against Phoenix earlier this month. “We’ve just got to continue it.”

Mazzulla told reporters in Detroit that the focus on such game management drove his excitement at the end of the third quarter Friday. Though Sam Hauser’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer did not go in, the Celtics again executed throughout the final minute of the quarter to produce a quality two-for-one. After Pistons guard Marcus Sasser drilled a 3-pointer over Xavier Tillman with 47.9 seconds left in the quarter, Jaylen Brown dribbled out just enough clock to attack at the right time. He drew a foul while pulling up for a jumper with 30.5 seconds left, ensuring that the Celtics would likely also get the last shot of the quarter. They did. After James Wiseman traveled with 21.0 seconds left, Brown again used the clock wisely, dribbling out most of the remaining seconds before finding Hauser for a decent look in the corner at the end of the quarter. Despite Hauser’s miss, Mazzulla appreciated Brown’s process during the play.

“I thought his ability handling the end of the quarter was really important for us,” Mazzulla told reporters. “It was great carryover.”

The Celtics didn’t need Jayson Tatum, Al Horford or Jrue Holiday to roll the Pistons for the second time this week. Brown scored 33 points on 13-for-19 shooting. Pritchard, coming off a big game against Milwaukee, took advantage of his third start this season with 20 points and nine assists. Hauser scored 14 points off the bench in his return after missing two games with a sprained left ankle.

What else could the Celtics gain from the win? While short-handed again, they started Kristaps Porziņģis and Tillman together in the frontcourt; that duo entered Friday with only 12 minutes played together. Brissett started in Tillman’s place in the second half, giving Mazzulla an opportunity to see another combination that hadn’t played much this season. He has tried different looks in the frontcourt since Porziņģis returned from a five-game absence earlier this week.

“I don’t really consider it an experiment,” Mazzulla said after starting Luke Kornet next to Porziņģis against Detroit on Monday. “It’s like hey, these are opportunities that we have to go, we have to (try) in case we need them for whatever reason, and finding these different ways. But I think the thing that these guys do is regardless of who is in, they are quickly understanding on both ends of the floor, what are the matchups? What are the coverages? What are we in? What are we attacking? And they do a great job of getting organized as far as that.”

(Photo of Payton Pritchard driving between Detroit’s Jaden Ivey and Troy Brown Jr. in the third quarter: Lon Horwedel / USA Today)

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