PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics are right back here at Wells Fargo Center a week after their toughest loss to the season, a rematch with the league-best 76ers, who have emerged as a legitimate NBA Finals contender.
There are three distinct differences when breaking down the Celtics’ eight wins and two losses through 10 games. The Celtics have shot dramatically worse from the 3-point line (38.6 percent to 30.2), the field (49.9 to 39.3), and they allowed the 76ers and Timberwolves to shoot 58.7 percent on 2-point shots compared with 47.7 with their other eight opponents.
Of course there are factors involved in these numbers. The Celtics were missing Derrick White in their loss at Minnesota. And the Celtics also faced two of the game’s premier scorers in midrange and the paint in the Timberwolves’ Anthony Edwards and Joel Embiid of the 76ers.
The Celtics are going to need to make some adjustments to win the rematch with the 76ers, although they did a solid job containing Embiid in the first meeting. Coach Joe Mazzulla believed his club lost the game in the second quarter when it yielded 39 points and gave up several hustle plays.
The one thing we’ve learned about the Celtics is they are an elite team when engaged. In the second half Monday against the Knicks, they were engaged defensively, making every shot difficult. It allowed Jayson Tatum to heat up in the fourth quarter and helped the Celtics pull away.
Another encouraging sign Monday was the performance of the reserves. Sam Hauser came off the bench to hit four 3-pointers and the Celtics’ offense will even be that more difficult to defend if Hauser, who at times is going to be left alone because of defensive emphasis on Tatum and Jaylen Brown, consistently hits 3-pointers.
After going 3 for 15 from beyond the arc in his first three games, Hauser has converted 25 of 44 (56.8 percent) in his past seven games, including 13 in the past three games. The Celtics have searched for a quality 3-point shooter off the bench for years and Hauser, now in his second full season, could be emerging as the answer.
Mazzulla understands Payton Pritchard has struggled mightily offensively. What’s more, he enters Wednesday night’s game having hit just one shot in 23 attempts in five road games. He is 16 for 29 at TD Garden. That trend definitely needs to change, but Pritchard is staying on the floor with his rebounding, assists, and hustle plays.
Late in the second quarter Monday, Pritchard smartly leaked out after a Julius Randle 3-point attempt that caromed off the rim.
Tatum rebounded and found a streaking Pritchard for an easy layup.
“They’re starting to develop an identity of what it looks like when they’re on the floor together,” Mazzulla said of the bench. “They’re taking pride in defense and doing some different things there. Our press looks a little bit different when our second unit is in. Our second unit is really developing an identity of a free flow offense and being creative on the defensive end.”
The Celtics may be shorthanded in their showdown with the 76ers as Kristaps Porzingis will be questionable with a right knee contusion after a collision Monday with Randle. It shouldn’t be a major concern as Porzingis remained in the game but the Celtics are going to have to be cautious with their big man, who has been injury prone throughout his career.
Porzingis has added another element to the Celtics offense with his ability to shoot from long range, which brings bigs such as Embiid away from the basket and clears the middle. Jrue Holiday is picking his spots to score, and he’s also averaging a career-best 7.3 rebounds and is shooting nearly 41 percent from the 3-point line in the past seven games.
“I think we’re starting to settle in offensively a little bit,” Brown said. “Definitely me and KP have been able to build some chemistry and it’s still early. We have a lot of growth to go. I’m excited. I’m always looking for the big fella any time he’s in a pick-and-roll which means they’ve got to make a decision. As long as we’re getting stops on the defensive end, I think we’re going to be able to have options on offense. Each and every night we have to make sure we set our tone physicality-wise.”
That was the issue last Wednesday in Philadelphia. The Celtics were pushed around in the paint, allowed too many second-chance points, and blew an 11-point, second-quarter lead, forcing them to chase Philadelphia for the rest of the game.
This is an important game for Boston. The Celtics need to show they can beat the elite teams in the NBA, especially on the road. They have proven they can win in a variety of ways and they’ll have a chance to show if they’ve learned from the mistakes of the first meeting.
They were upset after the loss, especially because they played so poorly and lost by 3 points. The goal this time is to pay attention to detail from the beginning, stay sound defensively and also take good shots in the flow of the offense. That should make for a winning recipe.