Joel Embiid: 76ers on ‘right path’ after test vs. Celtics

PHILADELPHIA — Before Wednesday night’s showdown between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, who entered the day tied for first place in the Eastern Conference, Sixers coach Nick Nurse said he felt it was the perfect time for his team to be tested by one of the league’s elite.

So, after the 76ers escaped with a 106-103 victory over one of their oldest rivals to claim the top spot in the East all for themselves, how did the NBA’s reigning MVP, Joel Embiid, grade his team’s performance?

“We got a long way to go,” Embiid said afterward, “but we’re on the right path.”

Embiid finished with 27 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals for Philadelphia (6-1), which has rattled off six straight victories after losing by a single point in Milwaukee two weeks ago to begin its season. But the way the 76ers closed the game left him with a sour taste in his mouth. After they seemingly had things under control, having taken a 102-87 lead — their biggest of the game — with 3:44 remaining, Boston finished with a frenetic 16-4 run to give itself a chance to send the game to overtime.

But after Jaylen Brown’s 3-pointer with 33.3 seconds remaining was followed by him blocking Tyrese Maxey’s shot to force a shot clock violation — giving Boston the ball down three with 8.6 seconds to go — a long 3-pointer from Kristaps Porzingis missed short, and Philadelphia was able to survive.

“There’s so many things that could’ve been better today,” Embiid said. “Taking care of the ball. Missed quite a few shots. Tyrese, he missed a lot of shots that he’s been making. We were not as efficient as we’ve been.

“But it happens. But, then again, I also like the effort and the intensity defensively, just being together, following the game plan.”

The game’s chaotic ending was fitting, given it was full of that type of energy on both sides. Neither team shot the ball well — Boston went 15-for-47 from 3-point range (31.9%), and Philadelphia was even worse (9-for-34, 26.5%) — and both teams repeatedly were able to take advantage of turnovers and loose balls to get runouts for easy buckets.

Part of the chaos was caused by the distinctive differences between the teams. Boston, with Derrick White back in the lineup after he missed the previous two games for the birth of his second child, stuck with the small lineup it has deployed to begin the season with its four guards and wings — White, Jrue Holiday, Brown and Jayson Tatum — alongside Porzingis, with longtime Embiid nemesis Al Horford coming off the bench.

As a result, Boston spent significant chunks of the game with Holiday — listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds — guarding the 7-foot, 280-pound Embiid, and Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla liked what he saw from it.

“I thought it went well,” Mazzulla said. “I thought it pushed catches out. Listen, you’re not going to stop him and there’s no one way to guard him. But I thought when you have to play a team four times and we have the ability to play a bunch of different ways and they did some things that we have to look at and see what we can go to later in the season. I thought he was good. I thought we pushed a lot of catches out. I thought we were physical with him. He’s going to get 27 a night no matter how we guard him.”

For his part, Embiid agreed.

“I was expecting it,” Embiid said. “I thought we didn’t do a good job of reacting to it. All they were basically doing was, you know, trying to front me. I thought there was so many times we could have had a high low. We just didn’t react quick enough to make it happen. So that’s an adjustment for the next few games. Whoever does it, I’m sure they’re going to do it again. Sometimes they were just coming right away and I thought we didn’t move the ball fast enough. We didn’t attack. We just kept getting stuck finding passes instead of just attacking and creating a shot for everybody else. But I thought they did a pretty good job.”

And while Mazzulla pointed out — on multiple occasions — that he felt Embiid was camping out in the lane for longer than the 3 seconds he is allowed to, helping him rack up those four blocked shots, it was the Celtics’ defense, which gave up 39 points in the second quarter to Philadelphia to flip the game on its head, that ultimately doomed them.

“I thought it was the second quarter, when we gave up the offensive rebounds in transition,” Mazzulla said. “You go back and watch close games, they’re never really lost in the fourth quarter. Sometimes they are, but you look at that run in the second quarter, where we gave up three or four straight offensive rebounds and then we didn’t get matched and gave up a 3. I think it was lost there.”

While both sides walked away with plenty of things to iron out on the practice court, they’ll have a repeat engagement here in one week to see how they adjust. In the meantime, Embiid was asked whether, after everything that has gone on with the 76ers over the past several weeks, and after the moves the Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks made this summer, he feels his team is being overlooked despite its hot start.

“I’m not sure. I guess that’s for you guys to figure out,” Embiid said with a smile. “Obviously those teams made a lot of improvements. Boston, they got a lot better. They look like they’re best team in the NBA, by far. Good for them. Milwaukee, too. Obviously adding [Damian Lillard] is huge. I mean, he’s amazing. The combination of Dame and Giannis [Antetokounmpo] is pretty good … unstoppable.

“[But] we’re just worried about ourselves. New coach, new system, bunch of new guys. Just trying to get everybody up to speed, and see what we can do. Like I always say, I’ve said it so many times, it doesn’t really matter who’s on the team. I always believe that I have an opportunity to win.”

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