The Celtics faced a tall task on Wednesday night, with Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis sitting out for a key early season tilt against the Philadelphia 76ers. Boston delivered a dud last week in Philly at full strength, and with the 76ers playing like a contender out of the gate in the East, falling down 0-2 in the head-to-head matchup would have been far from ideal for a potential tiebreaker.

With Joel Embiid cleared for action after playing nearly 40 minutes on Tuesday night in a loss to the Pacers, it was a clear sign the Sixers wanted this game as well. The stakes were evident for an early season matchup, but this would be the first time that Coach Joe Mazzulla would have to get creative with his new roster this year. Boston has been missing players for a few games, but never two starters, much less high-scoring talents like Porzingis and Brown.

Mazzulla was criticized in his first season for his predictability when the Celtics stuck to a tight rotation and playbook on both sides of the court and threw very few curveballs over the course of any game. To Mazzulla’s credit, he’s focused on changing that aspect of his coaching in year two, and those adjustments were on display Wednesday night as Mazzulla got creative in a few areas with a short-handed roster and showed a new willingness to trust in key moments.

Leaning into small ball: With Brown and Porzingis out, this would seemingly be a good chance for some athletic wings with size to get a chance in their place (Oshae Brissett, Lamar Stevens), right? So naturally, both of those guys did not play (coach’s decision), as Mazzulla threw his first curveball of the night at 76ers Coach Nick Nurse. When he got into his bench, he decided Boston would play small and fast, running three- and four-guard lineups all night around a single big. Some depth pieces like Svi Mykhailiuk and Dalano Banton got a shot and made some key contributors in a 36-22 first quarter. Mazzulla wisely went back to the look in the fourth quarter while Jayson Tatum rested. The net result was a lot of uptempo offense and easy looks at the rim and from beyond the arc as Boston punished Philly’s trapping mentality with plenty of 3-pointers and ball handling. Going with a smaller supporting cast against Joel Embiid isn’t a usual solution, but it was a wise bet given Mazzulla’s limited options on Wednesday night.

Empowering Derrick White late: One year ago, the point guard couldn’t get on the floor in crunch time of many games due to the Celtics’ glut in the backcourt. Brad Stevens took care of that issue this offseason, and Mazzulla took things a step further on Wednesday night amid limited scoring options for the Celtics. White had the ball in his hands often in the fourth quarter, making things happen as the initiator for the Celtics amid a largely uneven night for Jayson Tatum. The net result was a gem for White and Boston’s offense, which posted 60 points in the second half. The point guard had team-highs in points (14) and assists (three) in the fourth quarter.

“He drew up the first play for me, and then after that he just kind of said ‘stay aggressive,’” White told reporters in Philadelphia of his talks with Mazzulla. “I was able to get to my spots and make the right play. So I wouldn’t say my mindset changes that much. I just try to be aggressive like I always say and make the right play.”


One year ago, White wouldn’t have been in the game and certainly wouldn’t have been initiating the offense in those key spots. Mazzulla’s instinct to let him lead the second unit for a significant stretch helped Boston secure its fourth straight win.

“He’s one of those guys that always shows up to make the right play, and I thought he made some big-time plays,” Mazzulla told reporters. “I think it was 89-88 and I thought about calling a timeout, but he had the ball in his hands and I felt like if we could run a good set, we could kind of calm it down with execution, and he did that.”

Managing the rotation wisely: The Celtics won plenty of regular-season games last year, but a lot of them came while placing a heavy onus on the team’s starters. Mazzulla has been much better on this front this year, but Wednesday night was certainly a game that could have got away, given how short-handed the team was. The Celtics needed to fight hard for a win, but they were reasonable from a minutes standpoint. Jayson Tatum was just a bit over his average at 38 minutes. Horford was at a manageable 28. Mazzulla tried rolling with the bench a lot more than usual, pulling the plug early on experiments (Banton) while riding hot hands (Luke Kornet) for longer stretches. Toeing the line on this front is critical for a team in contention that needs to pile up regular-season wins without getting too worn down. The Celtics have positioned themselves well amid a 9-2 start.

Ultimately, Boston’s secondary stars got them the win on Wednesday night, but Mazzulla did well pulling the right strings on a night the team needed it.

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