Even after James Harden trade, Joel Embiid, 76ers still battling Celtics for top of East

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PHILADELPHIA — It was cool when it was just one loss. The Boston Celtics were off to a dream start to the season as their abundance of new talent was spinning opponents in circles. Then reality hit in Minneapolis to open the week, as a hungry Minnesota Timberwolves defense made them look vulnerable for the first time.

But for the most part, the Celtics enjoyed the battle and that reminder that the race to the top of the league is a marathon. But their loss Wednesday night didn’t look fun, the start of a losing streak and a rude awakening that the now first-place Philadelphia 76ers are going to keep fighting for the East crown.

The Celtics let this game slip away in the second quarter and trailed by double digits for most of the fourth. Then a sudden 11-0 run in the final two minutes brought them to the precipice. Yet in the end, the Celtics got their leading scorer a wide-open 3 to send it to overtime.

It doesn’t get any better than that. Unfortunately, Kristaps Porziņģis jumped a little too high when he stepped into his shot, he said, knowing it felt bad as soon as it left his hand.

“It was a good play by Joe (Mazzulla), but can’t ask for anything else,” Porziņģis said after losing 106-103 to fall to 5-2 and second place behind the Sixers. “A good look like that at the end to tie the game, that’s all we can ask for.”

From the jump, it was clear this was going to be a new iteration of the Celtics-Sixers rivalry that has defined the top of the East in recent years. The Celtics have always sent a cavalry of bigs to bang with Joel Embiid over the years with Marcus Smart finding his way in the mix, but this game featured Jrue Holiday taking on the MVP from start to finish.

In Minnesota, Holiday was the primary defender on Karl-Anthony Towns, holding him to seven points on approximately 30 possessions and forcing five turnovers. It was a surprise to see Holiday guarding Towns while the Celtics were starting the game double big, but Mazzulla’s gamble paid off.

But it wasn’t a surprise for Holiday to open the game on Embiid once Mazzulla announced Derrick White would return to the starting lineup after coming back from paternity leave. In the end, Mazzulla liked how Holiday pushed his catches out, but conceded that Embiid is going to get 27 points a night, no matter how you guard him.

“I was expecting it. I thought we didn’t do a good job of reacting to it,“ Embiid said. “All they were basically doing was trying to front me. I thought there was so many times we could have had a high-low. We just didn’t react quick enough to make it happen.”

It was all an effort to have Holiday do all the work up high on Embiid, then have Porziņģis and Al Horford rotate over late to protect the rim. That was a bit of a struggle.

“The one thing we have to teach our bigs is to stay in the paint on defense and not move, and we just got to be able to do that and protect the rim,” Mazzulla said. “I thought Embiid did a good job of standing in the paint, protecting the rim and forcing us to kick it out, and I just don’t think we made them.”

So why aren’t the Celtics bigs doing it right?

“Well, there is a rule called D3, but I don’t know if it’s a rule anymore,” Mazzulla deadpanned about the defensive 3-second rule that very much exists. “But I have to look it up.”

Mazzulla’s actual game plan would have Holiday front before the catch on Embiid to push him out toward the corner to make a double-team more effective, then Horford or Porziņģis would vary the timing and angles on their double teams to keep him off balance. In the middle of the fourth quarter, Mazzulla had Holiday on Embiid and then Horford on Tyrese Maxey because Maxey was going to run over to the elbow and drop it down to Embiid in the post.

Maxey faked a cut after passing it to Embiid, Horford doubled Embiid, then Jaylen Brown would sit in the help position to make a long close-out on Maxey. But when the pass came, Brown was taking a step backward and Maxey had just enough room to bury the 3 to go up 10.

From that point on, Boston’s execution was on point at both ends.

“Last game we didn’t go to ‘Angle,’ which I talked to you about with KP. Tonight we went to it and I thought that got Embiid spaced and then we were able to make some two-on-one reads,” Mazzulla said when The Athletic asked about fourth-quarter offensive spacing. “I thought in the first half we didn’t make great rim reads and in the second half we made better ones. But I thought we executed really well down the stretch. I thought we missed wide-open shots.”

Their spread pick-and-roll actions that buried teams in crunchtime the opening weeks of the season — aka ‘Angle’ — created open looks this time around. The only offensive possessions that weren’t run well started from some chaos in transition or just ended with Brown burying tightly contested stepbacks. After struggling in their first loss Monday, this was a step forward.

“I think it’s gonna take time. It’s gonna take time,” Porziņģis said. “But honestly we do have a lot of good moments, a lot of good moments where we find each other, where we hit each other with some good passes and start to reach each other more and more.”

On defense, the Sixers scored when Porziņģis’ stop on a Covington layup fell back into Covington’s hands, Horford took two gambles to double and the backside rotation was a smidge late, then Holiday and Tatum switched on the last Embiid bucket when the defenders could have gone under the high screen to keep the matchups in place.

Margins get small going up against this level of talent. The comeback they mounted was great, but they gave up too many inches early on to climb out of the hole.

“Anytime you’re playing against a great team like Maxey and Embiid, if you’re down 10, you’re down 15-18 because of their ability to make shots,” Mazzulla said. “So I thought we just stuck with it, and I thought we executed and we just have to have the emotional maturity and mental toughness to know we’re gonna learn from this and we’re seven games in and playing really close games against good teams and that’s a part of it.”

Most of this team already has a track record and, at least in the regular season, it’s pretty good. Even after Brown had another bad shooting night, he hit two massive 3s to bring the team back in it late.

Holiday and Porziņģis are the new members of the leadership structure. Holiday is renowned for his flexibility, effort and accountability. While he’s shooting the ball poorly this year from deep and in the paint, his defensive acuity, tempo control in transition, and passing creativity have been up to par.

Porziņģis was the game’s top scorer with 29 points — even if he missed the easiest dunk of his life and a wide-open 3 to win it — and has been transparent about all the things he is still trying to figure out.

“We’re working hard to be better with each game, and for me, at least I love winning, but I also like these adversities,” Porziņģis said. “We lose some games. OK, how are we gonna bounce back? We lost a couple in a row now. Let’s see how we come back from this one.”

Embiid said after the game Boston looks like it is “the best team in the NBA, by far.” But Boston’s been the best team on paper before and still come up short in the end.

The shots ebb and flow through the season. The effort and focus does as well. The latter is solely on them.

“It’s a long season and we’re not gonna blow every team out all year long, especially later in the season,” White said. “So, the more games we get at this and the more we can work on our execution and stuff like that is gonna make us better in the long run.”

So maybe that’s why when Mazzulla spoke after the game, he was gleefully going back and forth with reporters. He was breaking down play calls. He was rattling off a spreadsheet of data from the top of his head about winning percentages when holding teams below 25 points in a quarter.

It was the gleefully sarcastic coach of a team that’s losing, but in a way that he can mold back into winning. Mazzulla, much like his predecessors, has been all about process and intentionality. So the loss doesn’t hurt so much when they show they can do things the right way. So after being pushed about how his team is run in several different ways, Mazzulla had one more message for the reporters, for the Sixers, for the open shots that didn’t go in.

“That was fun,” Mazzulla said. “Thanks, guys!”

(Photo of Joel Embiid shooting between Derrick White and Al Horford of the Celtics: Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

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