PHILADELPHIA — After the Celtics trounced the 76ers by 34 points last week, coach Joe Mazzulla walked off the podium with a question for reporters: “What? Nobody wants to ask about all the adjustments we made from Game 1 to Game 2?”
The line seemed to age poorly as the second-round series progressed, with the Celtics getting outcoached and outplayed in Games 4 and 5 to find themselves on the brink of elimination headed into Game 6 Thursday at Wells Fargo Center.
But by the end of the night, Mazzulla didn’t have to call attention to his adjustments this time. His decision to insert center Robert Williams into the starting lineup over guard Derrick White proved to be effective, helping the Celtics even the series and force a Game 7.
“It just gives us size, athleticism, and versatility from a matchup standpoint, and gives us the ability to get coverage,” Mazzulla said after the 95-86 victory.
The combination of Williams, Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart registered an offensive rating of 105.1 and defensive rating of 80 in 19 minutes on the floor.
After the Sixers found so much success with Joel Embiid and James Harden in the pick-and-roll in Game 4, the Celtics’ new starting five didn’t allow the pair to establish a rhythm, stifling Philadelphia’s offense from the get-go. Williams’s presence in the paint reduced the number of clean passes and open looks, while his size and shot-blocking ability also forced the Sixers into difficult decisions at the rim.
Williams also remained a vertical threat on offense, scoring 10 points — 8 on dunks and 2 at the free throw line. He finished the game as plus-18 in 28 minutes, the most playing time he has logged in the series.
The Sixers, however, downplayed the impact of Mazzulla’s adjustment. Both players and coaches brushed off the challenges Williams posed, saying instead that they missed too many open looks. They called their woes “self-inflicted.”
“It didn’t matter what lineup,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We didn’t score on any lineup tonight. We struggled scoring.”
If the Celtics stick with Williams in the starting lineup, then Rivers will have a decision of his own to make. Should he continue to rely on P.J. Tucker, who has started all six games this series? Or should he start Georges Niang or De’Anthony Melton?
In Game 6, Rivers typically kept Tucker on the floor when the Celtics deployed only one big but turned to Niang or Melton when they deployed two. Tucker is one of Philadelphia’s best defensive options, but he allows Williams to sag off him. Niang or Melton, meanwhile, would stretch the floor and require more attention behind the arc.
The Sixers found Melton open for multiple 3-pointers down the stretch, but he missed all three of his attempts. Melton has yet to make a 3-pointer since his 4-of-7 performance in Game 2. If Rivers were to make a change, Niang seems the more likely candidate to start.
Regardless of who is in the starting lineup, the Sixers stressed the importance of moving the ball and finding Embiid more.
“I thought there were plenty of opportunities to swing, catch, and get Joel the ball in the right spots on the elbow,” Rivers said. “We just didn’t do it.”
After the game, Embiid sat at his stall, tearing off the adhesive wrap around his right knee. The bandage, along with the staffer and two buckets of ice beside him, served as a reminder that the 7-foot center is still playing through an LCL sprain in his right knee. The teams will have two days of rest between games for the first time in this series, which will surely benefit him.
As Rivers noted, though, the rest will help both teams, with Williams acclimating to playing a heavier workload and Brown having tweaked his knee on a wet spot late in the second half. Mazzulla used a tight seven-man rotation Thursday, with only White and Malcolm Brogdon coming off the bench.
Given the stakes — Game 7, with a spot in the conference finals on the line — perhaps more adjustments are in store. As Brown put it, “The playoffs are a game of chess.”
No matter the changes, both teams sounded eager to play Sunday.
“This is the NBA,” Harden said. “We play a lot of games. If you don’t play as well as you would like in one game, the beauty is you get another opportunity.”