The 76ers are still trying to prove worthy of the Celtics-Bucks’ status. They entered Saturday having won 14 of 17 games, with Joel Embiid emerging again as an MVP candidate, but there appears to be something not quite right.
The Eastern Conference race is beginning to take shape, and the Milwaukee Bucks dominated the Miami Heat on Friday, mostly without an injured Giannis Antetokounmpo, for their 13th consecutive win.
PHILADELPHIA — The Celtics have been in the psyche of the Philadelphia 76ers for a few years now, from the sweep in the NBA bubble to the two wins earlier this year in Boston. And Saturday’s clash was equally as important for the Celtics as it was for the 76ers.
In the Feb. 8 loss to the Celtics, they were a fully loaded team facing a Boston club missing three starters and then a fourth when Jaylen Brown went down with a fractured cheekbone in the second period. Yet, the Celtics dominated the second half and won, 106-99.
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“If we won by 40 tonight, what does that mean?” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said before the game. “If we don’t win, what does that mean? It means tonight we were not good enough. There’s some nights where you are good enough and you just don’t perform well enough. But you do want to play well against them.
“They are the team to beat in the East. They won the East, so that’s the team you have to beat, so the more you do that, the better it is for you.”
The 76ers have proven formidable at home and when facing inferior opponents but against the likes of the Celtics and Bucks, they need someone besides Embiid and James Harden to respond. That’s been their biggest issue.
Philadelphia has five players averaging in double figures but the supporting cast doesn’t always come to play on a nightly basis. Tobias Harris, fourth on the club with 15.4 points per game, has averaged 11 in two games against the Celtics, including 4 in the previous meeting.
Tyrese Maxey, who has been moved to a reserve to make room for Harden to handle the ball with the first unit, has been less impactful as a reserve than a starter. Rivers has brought Maxey off the bench for the past 12 games, to help boost a bench that has its moments but is not as productive as its Celtics counterparts.
Philadelphia wants to win behind the offensive production of Embiid and Harden with timely scoring from Maxey and Harris, and then solid on-ball defenders such as De’Anthony Melton and veteran P.J. Tucker. The result was the 16th-best offense in the league but the third-best defense.
“Doing it over and over again and buying in,” Rivers said when asked about the improved defense. “We have a good defensive team. We have some good defensive individuals. But when we do it as a group, we can be a really good defensive team. And doing that with consistency is our key.”
Rivers’s teams have always been defensive minded, and he has induced Embiid to be more impactful in the paint while Harden at least gives an effort, unlike some instances during his Houston days. Melton and Tucker are their two best defenders but neither has been able to effectively check Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown this season.
The Celtics got their second half off to a positive start with an overtime win against the Indiana Pacers, a team that has given them issues this season. Coach Joe Mazzulla was able to mix and match lineups because his team was fully healthy, meaning players such as Mike Muscala and Grant Williams played limited minutes or not at all against the Pacers.
“I’ve said it before that I have a great team here,” Mazzulla said Saturday. “I have guys with humility who understand and are always ready to play. Grant and Mike, and our entire team has that mind-set. So every game will bring us different challenges and different matchups and we just have to keep winning as the most important thing. But it starts with who they are as people.”
Saturday’s game meant just as much for the Celtics as for the 76ers in the standings. A loss meant Milwaukee would pull into a first-place tie in the Eastern Conference with games against the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers approaching.
But Mazzulla’s team has already proven it’s one of the NBA’s best with its work through the first three-fourths of the season. Health will be the lone obstacle as the playoffs approach. The 76ers are still trying to escape the pretender tag, still trying to prove they are a team capable of winning three playoff rounds and reaching the NBA Finals.
Last year, they were eliminated by the Miami Heat in six games, losing the final two games by a combined 44 points. This season they are a combined 1-3 against the Bucks and Celtics. In other words, Philadelphia has beaten up on the below average teams and been inconsistent against the elite teams. Saturday was a chance to change that perception. A win still wouldn’t bring them up to the Milwaukee-Boston level, but it would be a positive step forward.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.