The night came and went. The Sixers took on the Boston Celtics in game one of their first round series. The Sixers, of course , were without the services of Ben Simmons. The Celtics were fully healthy and ready to dance.
Let’s get to business, shall we?
After hinting that he might insert Matisse Thybulle into the starting lineup to match up with Boston’s wings, Brett Brown elected to continue on with the starting lineup of Milton, Richardson, Harris, Horford, and Embiid.
The Sixers came out playing, perhaps, the smartest offense they’ve played all season. Brown all bubble long, and Harris yesterday, spoke of the importance of establishing Embiid in the paint. Early on, that was exactly what the Sixers did. Embiid began the game shooting 4-for-4 from the field, all of his scores coming at or below the elbow. Horford was also catching the ball in the lane for his looks early. Looking to crush Boston with size, Brown forced the smaller Celtics to give up points at the rim or commit fouls.
On the defensive side of the ball, Brown elected to drop Embiid all the way to the rim when Daniel Theis caught the ball at the top of the key. Evidently, the strategy was to sacrifice the possibility of the big man connecting on deep balls in exchange for rim protection. While certainly a different strategy for the Sixers, the fruits of that idea can be short-lived. If you recall, when the Sixers faced the Celtics in the 2018 playoffs, Brown countered the Boston drop defense against Simmons by bringing JJ Redick off of DHOs from Simmons to draw the Celtics up. While the Celtics do not have as capable a shooter as Redick is, that strategy could burn the Sixer defense late in a game. By no means am I saying that it can’t work, it just isn’t a defensive strategy that I would deploy incessantly.
Everything That Could Go Wrong, Did Go Wrong
The Sixers got away from every principle they emphasize. Brett Brown often talks about ‘one-shot defense’; meaning, limiting the opponent’s offensive rebounds and curtailing second chance opportunities. In the first half, the Celtics secured seven offensive rebounds; backup center Robert Williams recorded four, alone. The Sixers have seen, time and time again, how turnovers cripple them in losses that should’ve been wins. Brown talked of the importance of protecting the basketball and maximizing field goal attempts. The Sixers turned the ball over thirteen times in the first half. With all of the chaos of live-ball turnovers and giving up offensive rebounds, the Sixers reverted back to their usual defensive issues. Suddenly, Boston was stepping into rhythm jumpers, getting open looks out of pick-and-rolls, and pulling away.
Despite all of the issues, it was a six-point deficit heading into halftime.
Al Horford was, for all intents and purposes, crushed through 2.5 quarters of this game. The Celtics were trapping him by the baseline and forcing him to pass out. Except, Boston’s active hands were there to deflect the passes and run in transition. While Horford showed some encouraging footwork and lateral speed on the defensive end, he was largely minimized on the offensive end of the floor. Called upon to win the minutes that both Embiid and Tatum were sitting, Horford responded. The veteran big man scored four points in the quarter–two to tie the game, and two to take the lead–in addition to satisfying his role as a defensive anchor. While the box score doesn’t reflect it, Horford was a significant driver in Philly going on a 15-0 run to turn an eleven-point deficit into a four-point lead.
Jaylen Brown left the game after knee-to-knee contact with Joel Embiid in the third quarter. He did return later in the quarter, but it is worth monitoring whether the all-star snub is affected by it as the series goes on.
Let Embiid Land The Plane
Ultimately, this game was decided in the final five minutes of regulation–as are the majority of playoff games. The execution of those last five minutes is one of my main criticisms of Brett Brown in this game. This series will be won or lost with the ball in Joel Embiid’s hands. Taking the ball out of Embiid’s hands is a good way to get fired, if we’re being blunt. Embiid took four shots in the final period, three of which came in the final five minutes of regulation. That shot total for the quarter is way too low, and only three in the final five minutes is unacceptable.
Josh Richardson, Alec Burks, and Tobias Harris all took more shots than Joel Embiid.— Austin Krell (@KrellTPL) August 18, 2020
The ball needs to be in his hands every possession he is on the court. Fourth on the team in field goal attempts is inconceivable.
At-Or-Below The Elbow
If the Sixers are going to win this series, their bet chance is born with Embiid catching passes at-or-below the elbow and going to work. With the Celtics frequenting man-to-man switches, Brown should be calling for high pick-and-rolls every time Embiid is on the floor. With those high pick-and-rolls, the Celtics will either have to stop switching and, perhaps, go with a defense they’re not comfortable with. Or, there is the option that would play into the Sixers’ strategy–a smaller defender is switched onto Embiid. From there, it’s not hard to get Embiid the ball in a position of comfort and advantage.
This series will be defined by the Sixers taking advantage of their overwhelming size advantage against the Celtics. Brown must send the directive to get the ball to his best player when he has a comical size advantage. Or, he may as well start taking Zoom interviews with other teams.
Game 2 tips off at 6:30 PM, EST on TNT. The Sixers have less than 48 hours to correct some very fixable issues, or else they will have their backs to the wall very quickly.