Throughout training camp, Joe Mazzulla talked about curveballs. Whether that was employing a full court press in the preseason or using different starting lineups game-to-game, it was a point of emphasis for the Celtics head coach to be able to do different things on the fly.
Against the 76ers on Wednesday night, Mazzulla tried throwing another bender. Facing reigning MVP Joel Embiid, he tasked Jrue Holiday to cover him.
This isn’t exactly something new. Just seven games into the regular season, Holiday has already taken extended shifts defending big men like Julius Randle and Karl Anthony-Towns; combined, they shot just 5-of-16 with five turnovers. Maybe using Holiday as the primary defender against power forwards and centers shouldn’t qualify as a curveball. The five-time All-Defense player was voted by far as the league’s best defender by The Athletic’s NBA poll.
Of course, it’s not as if Holiday was a one-man Embiid stopper, but part of a larger defensive scheme that Mazzulla thought worked despite Embiid netting 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting.
“I thought it went well. I thought it pushed catches out. Listen, you’re not going to stop him. There’s not one way to guard him,” Mazzulla said.
Embiid was the best player in Philly’s win and even without another All-Star on the roster anymore, he pushed the 76ers to 6-1 and atop the Eastern Conference. After two preseason games and a regular season loss, the Celtics are still experimenting with how they’ll defend their Atlantic Division rivals.
“I thought when you have to play a team four times and we have the ability to play a bunch of different ways, I think those are the things we have to look at and see what we can go to later in the season and down the stretch,” Mazzulla continued. “I thought it was good. I thought he pushed a lot of catches out. I thought we were physical with him. He’s going to get you 27 no matter how you guard him.”
Even though Embiid was the game’s highest scorer, he also lead all players with six turnovers, in large part to Holiday’s pesky yet stout defense. By fronting and pushing Embiid’s catches further away from the paint, that forced the big man to put the ball on the floor and allowed help defenders to come in at different times and angles to confuse him.
In twenty-two possessions, Holiday held Embiid to 1-of-3 from the field with three TO’s. It was a matchup that he was ready for before the game, relishing the idea of guarding the opposing team’s best player.
It’s a bit of a rope-a-dope strategy from Mazzulla and the Celtics. Even when he’s catching it deep with a foot in the key, the idea is to bring help with either Kristaps Porzingis or Al Horford just like they used Robert Williams in the prior two seasons as a free safety.
It wasn't exactly David vs. Goliath. At just Game #8, the stakes just aren't there. However, for a Celtics team that many have thought lacked depth at the 5, Holiday may have assuaged some of those concerns with his ability and eagerness to defend the bigs.