BOSTON — Joe Mazzulla hoped the Celtics would carry over the sustained intensity from the Bulls game.
It would become more difficult without the dark green court and the dangling point differential carrot leading to Vegas. The 76ers ruled out Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid — further reducing the urgency. Boston led by eight points to close the first quarter, but quickly lost it and never could extend an advantage beyond that. The Celtics locked into a possession-for-possession battle for the rest of the night, playing some of their worst defense yet.
“That happens every game. That happens to every team, every league. We talked about that today,” Mazzulla said on Thursday at practice. “Can we be the team that doesn’t fall into that? It’s going to happen from time-to-time, but can we recognize it and give ourselves tools. In the heat of those moments, can we go to things that bring back our focus? … there are a ton of blown leads in the NBA … you talk to K.P., K.P.’s been playing with point differential his whole career. So he can’t fathom why you wouldn’t play up 30 points … if we could at some point be the team that’s the best at playing regardless of what the score is, it allows us to build a mindset and habits.”
“You have a lead, are you going to play to increase it? Or are you going to not play, and allow it to decrease? Whether there’s an In-Season Tournament and point differential or not, we have to get great at the space of, we’re winning and we’ve got to work on keep winning. Not relax.”
Friday’s game encapsulated that idea, beginning with eight turnovers and nearly ending when Jayson Tatum received a second technical foul after his seventh turnover to close the third quarter. The Celtics couldn’t simply switch into In-Season mode. Instead, Boston found ways to win around their compounding mistakes, bad stretches, defensive lapses and Tatum’s absence late. In a roundabout way, they answered Mazzulla’s call.
It could’ve happened more smoothly.
Philadelphia pulled within 26-25 in the third frame after a 36-25 letdown in the second by Boston on Robert Covington’s three free throws — Tatum assessed a flagrant after losing control of the ball and ejected by Bill Kennedy. Mazzulla stepped into the huddle, placing Neemias Queta on the floor alongside Payton Pritchard, Sam Hauser, Jrue Holiday and Al Horford. Tatum, whose turnovers undermined the defense early, took an almost needed early breather.
“I don’t really know what led to his ejection. There was one second on the clock and I was trying to figure out what we were going to do as far as where the ball was and what our lineup was to start the fourth,” Mazzulla said. “As far as turnovers, just like everybody else, keep the game simple, make the right play and put himself in positions to make the right read. Working on the two-on-one pass and then, obviously, seeing a bunch of different coverages and making those adjustments over time. It’s something (Tatum) works at all the time, so I’m not concerned.”
That group provided the closing energy needed after a flat start that Horford and Holiday acknowledged stemmed in part from playing down to the competition. The Celtics overcame a four-point deficit 30 seconds into the fourth to pull away, 125-119, on a 30-20 run with Horford on the floor for the entirety of the fourth. His back-to-back blocks on Tobias Harris, driving baseline feed to Holiday for the go-ahead three, go-ahead post up finish and feed to Holiday for free throws finally built a five-point lead with one minute to play.
An undermanned Philadelphia team hadn’t trailed by any more than four points since midway through the second quarter. Patrick Beverley peppered baskets alongside De’Anthony Melton until the latter fouled out with five minutes remaining. The Sixers shot 8-for-23 (35%) in the fourth, squandering opportunities like Robert Covington’s put-back attempt that Melton picked up a sixth foul after, along with his wide open miss in the corner down three with Horford helping on Marcus Morris. Covington charged into Holiday down three and Beverley launched a step-back three miss with their deficit up to five. Mazzulla also made a quick shift away from Luke Kornet after a costly loose ball foul in favor of Pritchard, triggering an 8-0 run with spacing.
“I thought everybody stepped up. And that’s just kind of the team that we have,” Mazzulla said. “I thought the guys did what they had to do to win. Games like that, everybody has the expectation of the game is supposed to go a certain way. That’s not how the NBA works. You saw it the other night with Chicago and Milwaukee … Chicago’s two best players are out, they win in overtime. The game wasn’t supposed to go a certain way. It went how it went, and it was tough, and I thought we did a great job making plays when it was necessary.”
“We did not do a good job in our individual defense, we did not do a good job taking tendencies. Pat Beverley got into the lane four times with his right hand. We didn’t take Morris’ air space and then our pick-up point on Melton wasn’t great,” he critiqued. “Once we were able to get past the idea of it didn’t go the way we think it should go, now we can adjust and play … 36-point quarters back-to-back is completely unacceptable and it’s because of our lack of detail.”
Horford, quick to acknowledge poor starts, confirmed Boston entered the game flat. While not featuring some of the loftier lost leads from early in the schedule, it closely resembled the Celtics’ four losses, which all featured 8+ point Boston leads at one point. The Celtics led by 12 on opening night before finishing ahead by four. They blew a 17-point head start on Philadelphia in their previous meeting before halftime before rebuilding it in the third. They closed in on double-digit leads multiple times in Memphis, going down to the last shot instead.
The Celtics led by 18 in Charlotte and 12 in Orlando late last month before suffering arguably their two worst losses all year. That didn’t happen Friday. Boston did everything early set up such a demise, and received the other side of some shooting fortune late to avoid it. Part of developing a mindset, as Mazzulla often references. It’s one Holiday doesn’t see as fully developed, but on the way after noticing Boston win several of these games.
“I feel like in the second half we responded and it was much better,” Horford told CLNS Media. “Once you get a team going like that, it’s hard to cool them off. They were confident. They were playing. It was one of those games that we had to find a way to win, and I’m glad we won, because it would’ve been awful if we would’ve lost this game.”