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A healthy and motivated James Harden may be just the piece Doc Rivers needs with 76ers

Doc Rivers (left) has only made two NBA Finals with some incredibly talented rosters — it's a head-scratcher.Tim Nwachukwu/Getty

Although he’s endured and survived his share of pressure-cooker situations — the 18-game losing streak in 2006-07 in Boston; winning a championship with a stacked team a year later; and all the expectations that came in Los Angeles with the Lob City Clippers — this may be Doc Rivers’s most anxious and tenuous time of his 24-year coaching career.

He was hired to bring the 76ers back to prosperity after the conclusion of The Process but the franchise has been on a treadmill for years, unable to even reach the conference finals, unable to win with one of the more gifted centers of this generation.


Of course, the failures haven’t been all Doc’s fault. The Sixers’ stunning seven-game conference semifinal loss in 2021 to the Hawks, a team with inferior talent but more togetherness, can be blamed as much on Ben Simmons’s inability to shoot and fourth-quarter collapses as Rivers’s coaching.

Last season, the 76ers entered their conference semifinal against top-seeded Miami with Joel Embiid missing the first two games with an eye injury and James Harden out of shape and unengaged.

This year, Harden has shown up in shape and scored 66 points in Philadelphia’s first two games. Embiid had a rest-and-recover summer with his eye and knee and apparently will take a few weeks to work himself into top condition.

But the 76ers have started 0-2, losing to the Celtics with Embiid not looking like himself and then their home opener to Milwaukee when the offense disappeared down the stretch. The defense has improved, but one more playoff flame-out could mean the end for Rivers. He understands the consequences of losing.

“I never run from [expectations] and they are what they are,” he said. “I know one thing, I sure would rather have them than not. I would rather be in the arena and in the fight and in the conversation. I would rather one of our teams to have a chance to win and I’ve always thought you should embrace it and you have to be up to the challenge.


“Everyone’s not going to win it this year. I’ve heard nine teams already that are contenders, at the end of the year, I guarantee you there will be only one and all the other eight will not do it.”

Rivers is right. At least 10 teams — one third of the league — have a legitimate shot at winning the title: Golden State, Phoenix, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver, Memphis, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Miami. The 76ers are going to have to navigate a difficult Eastern Conference that has improved from top to bottom.

Cleveland added Donovan Mitchell. Atlanta traded for Dejounte Murray. Detroit is young and talented and perhaps a few years away from contending. Toronto is always a difficult opponent. And none of those teams are considered title contenders.

James Harden is a former MVP, but struggled at points last season with his conditioning and his production.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

“It’s hard to win,” Rivers said. “We were talking about the Dodgers, who won the division by 22 games and they’re out. It’s hard to win. You have to have everything go your way and the teams win, the teams that come together. Those are the teams that win.”

The good news is Harden looks back to his old self. He is scoring like in his Houston days. He’s more aggressive and looks a step quicker. Maybe he just needed a full summer and training camp to adjust, but he’s appeared more engaged — always an issue with Harden — than in past years.


“[Harden] knows what we want out of him,” Rivers said. “He knows our stuff. Our playbook is bigger. He has better rhythm. It’s funny, the games [Harden and Embiid] played, they were No. 1 in the pick-and-roll but we really didn’t have great synergy yet. Every day they’re together, they lead each other. They learn where each other wants it. I think that helps us.”

If Rivers doesn’t return next season, he will remain a sought-after coach but the Celtics title was nearly 15 years ago. He hasn’t been to an NBA Finals since 2010. There will be questions as to whether Rivers still has that magic to motivate a team to greatness.

“What you want is your team to play together, to compete,” he said. “I don’t look back much yet and I still love what I’m doing. I don’t do that often. When I do look back, I look back here [in Boston]. The nine years were amazing and whenever you come throughout the city you feel that energy. The good ones can never be replaced.”

Rivers is banking on the team’s depth. The club added P.J. Tucker, Danuel House Jr., De’Anthony Melton, and Montrezl Harrell to improve scoring in the paint and defense. They held the Bucks to 90 points Thursday after yielding 126 to the Celtics, an encouraging sign.


“I think we’re a better defensive team,” Rivers said. “It may not show right away but it’s clear we have better individual defenders this year than we did last year. It’s no doubt about that. Now we have to turn that into great individual defense, which leads into great team defense.”


TNT analysts have their concerns

Despite the strong start, not everyone is sky-high on Joe Mazzulla's Celtics.Megan Briggs/Getty

The Celtics looked as if they hadn’t missed a beat or weren’t adversely affected by the departure of coach Ime Udoka when they raced past the 76ers, 126-117, on opening night at TD Garden. What’s more, they may have strengthened their hold as favorites in the Eastern Conference.

Yet, as with every contender, there are concerns. Robert Williams is out until January. Danilo Gallinari may miss the season. And what happens when the team hits its first rut under interim coach Joe Mazzulla?

Turner Sports analysts Candace Parker, Reggie Miller, and Jamal Crawford have their concerns.

“Boston is in an interesting situation, not only with the coach but also their frontcourt,” Parker said. “I think this early part, until they’re able to get everybody healthy, you have an older Al Horford, you have a young and hungry Grant Williams, who I think has shown the league that he’s ready for a bigger role. And they’re going to need that at the beginning. So you’re also balancing adjusting to a new way of doing things, a new voice, but also trying to battle not having a healthy frontcourt.”

The Celtics finished last season with the No. 1 scoring and field goal percentage defense in the NBA. While Mazzulla was considered the team’s defensive coordinator under Udoka, the question is whether they can continue that defensive dominance.


“They battled a lot of adversity last year. I think they were 10th in the East and then ended the season going on a tear,” Parker said. “As a young player, you either learn from last year because you did lose and did make the Finals and you say, ‘We cannot start off that way.’ This is a year that you’re going to have to see [Jayson] Tatum, you’re going to have to see Marcus Smart take the reins on the defensive end because I think on the defensive end is what got them over the hump in the second part of the year.

“You’re going to have to see those guys on the defensive end as they did at the end of the year and try to get past this health because they cannot open up the year the way that they did last year and expect to have the similar results than they did. I think a lot of that is going to be starting off better and not going through those bumps.”

The Celtics began last season 18-21 before finishing on a 33-10 run to claim the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. The emphasis in training camp was getting off to a better start, avoiding pitfalls that had fans and experts questioning whether Udoka was ready for the job.

“You see the Spurs, you see the organizations that have been really great for a very long time: You don’t lose at home and you don’t lose back-to-back games,” Parker said. “That’s the rule. So when you’re stringing together six, seven, eight losses in a row, that’s trying. Trying to battle adversity piling up is going to be tough. They have to start off the season better and win some games early to get that confidence and get healthy.”

Miller, a Hall of Fame shooting guard, said Mazzulla won’t really be tested until the postseason, when opposing coaches such as Erik Spoelstra and Mike Budenholzer can game plan for an entire series.

“The last time I checked, coaches aren’t on the floor actually playing the games,” Miller said. “The reason why I say that especially in the professional ranks, it matters more in college and in high school, but in the professional ranks, coaching is overrated until the playoffs because there’s way too many games. You play a team, you’re on a plane, and you’re off to another city and there’s not a lot of prep work.

“That’s why during the regular season I don’t think this hiccup with Ime and Mazzulla coming in is going to be a big deal during the regular season, but I think Coach Mazzulla has the ear of Tatum and [Jaylen] Brown. He’s worked with them extensively so he has their ear.

“I think where they can run into an issue is come playoff time where teams have time to prep for you. They take away your first three or four plays, your best players’ three or four best plays. You have to game plan from game to game and series to series, that’s when we’ll see the coaching change manifest itself.”

TNT's Reggie Miller (center) is among those with some concerns about the Celtics.Maddie Meyer/Getty

Frontcourt injuries could be an issue. Mazzulla went with Noah Vonleh, who made the team out of training camp, as his first big man off the bench when Horford got into foul trouble in Tuesday’s opener. The Celtics lack a proven backup center beyond Horford until Robert Williams returns.

“They lose Gallinari even before he was able to put on a uniform,” Miller said. “Robert Williams, who was fantastic for them a year ago defensively, he’s going to be on the shelf for two months. Your frontcourt doesn’t have a lot of depth. You’ve got some young studs though in Jaylen and Jayson. I think they can ride that momentum and they have the defensive player of the year in Marcus Smart.

“A lot of people aren’t talking about the pickup of Malcolm Brogdon. The question is can he stay healthy because when he’s healthy everywhere he’s been, he’s been productive. So when he’s on the floor, I think it’s going to help the Boston Celtics. We’ll see during the regular season, they’ll be fine, they’ll win 50-plus. They’re in that top tier. Once the playoffs begin and Coach Mazzulla has to make adjustments, we’re going to see how this coaching change is going to affect them.”

Crawford, joining TNT after winning Sixth Man of the Year three times in his 18 seasons, said Tatum and Brown will have to emerge as more than top scorers.

“For me, it comes down to obviously losing Ime, but I think it’s a heck of an opportunity for Tatum and Brown to show their leadership,” Crawford said. “They obviously are leading on the court with the stats and offensive production but it’s a chance for them to galvanize that group.

“It’s amazing, the first half of the season, they were average and they hit their stride and figured it out the second half of the season and rode that wave to the Finals. With that, the stuff the coaches were saying the first half of the season, the players probably weren’t hearing.

“Ime came from the San Antonio culture and he knew what it takes to win a championship. Now that those guys have reached the Finals, they may come with that same juice from Day 1. It’s an opportunity for them. Brogdon is going to be great for them. I think he’s a cooler head, especially in the fourth quarter of games. I love Smart and what he brings to the team, but I always thought they needed a little more from a pure point guard, especially late in those games.”

Crawford said he’s interested in how players respond to Mazzulla during a losing streak or difficult stretch.

“I think when you’re an assistant coach, you have the ear of the players, hopefully they show him that same respect when he’s barking at them and getting on them because they’ll need that going forward,” Crawford said. “They’ll be right there. So they have good vets but I want to see the younger guys take that leadership role on and off court to guide the ship to hopefully where they got last year.”


NBA official Tony Brown died this week at age 55.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

Blessings and farewell to veteran official Tony Brown, who died this past week from cancer at 55. Brown officiated 1,110 regular-season games and 35 playoff games in his 20 years and was one of the top officials in the NsBA bubble, where this reporter got to know him on the Orlando campus. Many officials in the bubble would relax at poolside along with media members and bonds developed. Despite his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, Brown returned to work in the NBA Replay Center, making calls following official reviews. Brown was beloved and respected around the league . . . Grant Williams was one of a handful of fourth-year veterans who did not agree to a rookie contract extension and there is no certainty he will be in Boston past this season, although he loves playing for the Celtics. The Celtics have several players under deals for multiple seasons, including Tatum, Brown, Smart, Derrick White, Robert Williams, and Brogdon. The organization, because of rising luxury taxes, could not have been interested in signing Williams to a multiyear deal that exceeded their budget. The Celtics only have $33 million coming off the books, the salaries of Horford, Blake Griffin, Vonleh, and Justin Jackson. Adding Grant Williams at $15 million per season, his market value, would mean increased luxury tax payments. The Celtics could match offers from other clubs or allow Williams to play two more seasons, become an unrestricted free agent, and try to re-sign him in 2024. There will be plenty of teams with salary cap space after this season and Williams could procure multiple offers. Essentially, Williams bet on himself and there could be a franchise offering not only a new contract but a slot in the starting lineup . . . Speaking of Horford, just because his contract expires after this season does not mean his tenure with the Celtics is over. Horford could agree to a new contract at a reduced rate [he earns $26 million this season]. Because of the over-38 rule, which prevents teams from offering four-plus-year contracts to players who turn 38 during the contract, the Celtics cannot, for example, offer Horford a four-year, $80 million deal knowing he likely wouldn’t finish the contract. Horford turns 37 in June.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.