PHILADELPHIA — Any questions about how Kristaps Porziņģis would fare as the lone Celtics starting big man against reigning MVP Joel Embiid will have to wait after Boston’s 106-103 loss to the Sixers on Wednesday. Porziņģis rarely guarded him straight-up.
Foul trouble in recent games informed a new approach against an offensive center, playing Porziņģis away from the ball in a new-look approach to handling Embiid and a different 76ers team than the one Boston defeated in the east semifinals in the spring. The Celtics’ roster changed significantly too, and following Derrick White’s return from a personal leave for the birth of his second child, Al Horford returned to the bench as the point defender Boston long leaned on to slow Embiid.
“In the first half, (Porziņģis) timing was a little bit off,” Joe Mazzulla said. “Embiid makes quick attacks. I thought in the second half he did a good job.”
“The one thing we gotta teach our bigs is to stand in the paint on defense and not move,” Mazzulla joked. “We’ve gotta be able to do that so we can protect the rim. I thought Embiid did a great job of standing in the paint, protecting the rim and forcing us to kick it out.”
The Celtics started the first quarter with Porziņģis in that alignment and Jrue Holiday picking up Embiid at the elbow. That positioning helped Porziņģis escape the first quarter with only one foul following an early contest while trailing Embiid along the baseline. Horford guarded Porziņģis again in double-big lineups, and the Celtics limited Embiid to 12 points, three assists and 4-for-9 shooting with a pair of turnovers in the first half.
Philadelphia’s other perimeter scorers gave the Celtics issues, spreading the floor and entering the ball quickly into the half court during a second quarter where the Sixers shot 15-for-28 and scored 39 points. Embiid only accounted for two of them. Boston countered by placing Porziņģis in the post, where he sealed Tobias Harris for a pair of free throws, caught an entry from Horford in the corner for a quick finish and hit a leaning face-up hook over Embiid through a foul. He helped the Celtics keep pace on offense, but the 76ers led at halftime, 61-54, due in part to Porziņģis’ continued learning curve playing center in Boston’s system.
“There are many different things, names and all that (in Boston’s defense),” Porziņģis said. “The biggest adjustment that I have to make is to rewire myself to be back even more in drop coverage. To make sure I protect the rim even more. Sometimes, I fight my instinct to be up a little higher, but the coaching staff and Joe, they want me back. Of course, there are different coverages that I have to be up and switch and do all kinds of different things. But I would say that’s one of the biggest challenges for me.”
Horford replaced Porziņģis after a pair of fouls two minutes into the third quarter, recording a pair of blocks in the drop position. He started his run by forcing a turnover on Embiid, White following by stripping Tobias Harris in the lane as the Celtics stayed within one possession. He swung a pass to Jayson Tatum for three, then missed a second-chance three on a possession that started with six passes to set up White.
Bad shooting, inside and out, aided Philadelphia’s transition attack. Porziņģis missed a layup cutting to the rim then his follow-up dunk attempt after a smooth move bounced out. Robert Covington hit a three and Patrick Beverley blew by Payton Pritchard to push into the fourth ahead by 10 points. Mazzulla wanted his big men to play closer to the rim. In the second, Porziņģis and Horford connected with a well-timed trap to block Embiid and earn free throws as Embiid pulled Porziņģis away from the loose ball by the shoulder with Boston in the bonus.
“Most of the game, I was on somebody else,” Porziņģis said. “So I could help and we could double Joel, because he’s a tough guy to stop one-on-one. I think the game plan was good … we did some of that in Washington last season, similar, (but) here is a bit different. The names for things and (playing) even more back and more adjustments in-game, quicker adjustments and things like that, even at a higher level. I’m learning quick and we have a long season ahead of us to get better … and to be on point with all these small details of the game.”
Boston fell behind by 14 with two minutes to play and nearly tied the game following a furious 10-0 rally over 57 seconds. Porziņģis side-stepped into a potential game-tying three before the buzzer, front-rimming it as the ball bounced in front of Embiid and the clock expired. He later said he stepped into the shot like a mid-ranger, rather than a three, and felt it flying short immediately upon release.
Porziņģis finished with four fouls, Embiid scored 27 and while a renewed effort to find Porziņģis resulted in a 29 point night on 10-for-18 shooting after his overtime disappearance in Minnesota. The adjustment to playing Boston’s defensive system and bruising bigs like Embiid continued, and while Porziņģis’ contests disrupted New York, his switching surprised in the ensuing victories and his height deterred some opposing drivers, Bam Adebayo, Rudy Gobert and Embiid attacked him head-on and found ways to knock him off his spot.
“There’s no one way to guard him,” Mazzulla said. “When you have to play a team four times, we have the ability to play a bunch of different ways … see what we can go to later in the season and down the stretch. I thought it was good. I thought (Holiday) pushed a lot of catches out, I thought we were physical with (Embiid). He’s going to get 27 no matter how you guard him.”