Joel Embiid after victory over Celtics
Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

After Sunday’s matchup with the Pelicans was canceled due to Philadelphia’s not having enough players available, the Sixers (15-15) were back in action on Monday night. They visited the Boston Celtics (15-15). Philly aimed to snap a three-game losing streak, while Boston was looking to build on a victory over the Knicks. Joel Embiid, Seth Curry, and Tobias Harris combined for 92 points in a 108-103 victory over the Celtics.

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Andre Drummond, Shake Milton, and Georges Niang were in the health and safety protocol and were unavailable for the Sixers.

Furkan Korkmaz missed the game with a non-COVID illness. Tyrese Maxey was out with a left quad contusion.

Ben Simmons is not mentally ready to play and, thus, was unavailable.

Jaden Springer is in concussion protocol and was out.

Doc Rivers started Seth Curry, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

The following Celtics were in the health and safety protocol and were unavailable:

  • Al Horford
  • Josh Richardson
  • Jabari Parker
  • Grant Williams
  • Brodric Thomas
  • Juancho Hernangomez
  • Sam Hauser

Robert Williams missed the game due to personal reasons.

Ime Udoka started Dennis Schroder, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Enes Freedom.

First Quarter

Doc Rivers opening the game with Matisse Thybulle in the starting unit was entirely predictable and, yet, a total slap in the face to data. Not that the first quarter and the fourth quarter are the same, but Rivers watched the Celtics help entirely off Thybulle in the final frame the first time the two teams met. They fronted Joel Embiid and put a helper on the back side so as to deny him entry passes. As a result, Philly could not score in the fourth quarter and eventually lost on the final play of the game. 

Here’s the thing about putting Thybulle in the starting five — lineups featuring him and Embiid are getting outscored by 7.24 points per 100 possessions, and giving up 113.78 per 100, in about 220 minutes played together this season. So, the Sixers are actually losing bang for their buck whenever Rivers plays Thybulle with Embiid. Even if the strategy is to go bigger for defensive purposes, it’s simply not working. Conversely, Embiid lineups sans Thybulle are outscoring opponents by 9.63 points per 100 possessions in about 410 minutes played this season. If the goal is to establish your superstar against a weak interior defense early in the game, starting Thybulle next to Embiid makes no sense.

Is Philly short-handed? Sure. But, why not just start, say, Isaiah Joe at two-guard and keep Danny Green at small forward? A slow start on offense — for a team that has really struggled on that end over the last few weeks — would be entirely predictable and very avoidable.

With Embiid, Harris, and Curry supplying nearly all of the offense in the first quarter, the Sixers won the first frame on the defense end of the floor. First, the transition defense was excellent when the Celtics tried to take advantage of open-court chaos or get out and run. Danny Green stretched his hamstrings with a chase-down rejection on Jaylen Brown, but it was largely a team-centric improvement. Rotations were crisp and timely and close-outs were disciplined. The more you can make an offense swing the ball without allowing hit-ahead passes, the better off you are. The Celtics weren’t making long passes up the court. Rather, they were forced to make extra shorter passes once they got up the court to get the shots they wanted.

Second, Thybulle did an excellent job of taking away driving gaps from the nearest Celtic upon catching the ball. In closing off those driving lanes and inhibiting Boston’s ability to slash, Thybulle got the Celtic in front of him off balance to force impossible shots and turnovers.

Second Quarter

Joel Embiid. That is (basically) all.

He simply devoured Enes Freedom in the second frame. His pull-up midrange jumper tortured Freedom and the Celtics all quarter long. And once Embiid found that touch, he was catching the ball at the key, walking Freedom to the corner, and bodying him into the lane. 

Getting the ball to a burning-hot Joel Embiid is always a good offensive solution until he runs cold. But, the Sixers could’ve done more to diversify their attack against Freedom. Seth Curry was a midrange sniper all half. Seeing how blistering both were, it would’ve been a wonderful opportunity to leverage their chemistry with each other by going to their two-man game to force Freedom to lift out of the lane and guard in space. They both got their rightful touches while the fire was burning, but they didn’t do enough in the way of incorporating screening actions to force Freedom to pivot or move.

Even if you’re not diversifying with ball-screen actions, the Celtics eventually gave Freedom some help. With the helper occasionally shading towards Embiid, the Sixes could’ve leveraged the two-man game on one side of the floor to add in some off-ball actions. But not today — it was a steady diet of Embiid isolations and Curry snaking ball screens and executing in the midrange.

It would be nice if Philly received a modicum of reinforcement from its bench. The starters scored 50 of the team’s 51 points before halftime.

Third Quarter

The Sixers desperately needed a big night from Tobias Harris to help shoulder Embiid’s load. And to his credit, Harris answered the bell. His aggression in attacking the cup was a breath of fresh air in the third quarter. The Celtics granted him a touch of space on a pick-and-roll at the elbow, and he converted a pull-up jumper off the dribble. Beyond that, Harris actively sought the cup when he touched the ball and, as such, got right to the rim for scores.

The Sixers lost a bit of their offensive flow in the third frame due to a number of unforced errors. Sloppy ball-handling is a factor there. The Sixers don’t have adept-enough ball-handlers to continuously keep the ball close to the ground when they dribble into traffic. The other culprit was poor back-side communication. Even the non-Embiid Sixers were surprised when Celtics swooped in from behind to force turnovers. Those miscues show up on the handler’s box score. But, it’s on his teammates to alert him of the danger lurking on the back side. Aside from some screen navigation errors that allowed some three-point looks or drives, the biggest communicative issues were in aiding teammates who had the ball with their backs turned to one side of the court. 

Fourth Quarter

Joel Embiid. That is (basically) all. Again.

As good as Embiid was in this game, and he was incredible, his turnovers were problematic. The back-side communication, as I already mentioned, is more his teammates’ faults than anything. But, that communication needs to be especially tight for a big man of his archetype. First, it disincentivizes him to play out of the post if he can’t trust his teammates to alert him when a help defender shades the baseline to poke the ball away. Second, Embiid’s tendency to favor the DHO is a vulnerable point. When he pivots to initiate the hand-off with Curry, his back is turned to one side of the floor. That creates a blind spot that his teammates must protect. Third, when he’s catching at the middle of the floor, Embiid has to turn his back to step out and catch the ball if it’s coming from one of the wings. On Monday, that allowed the likes of Marcus Smart and other Celtics to blitz the catch and poke the ball loose for transition play.

The other issue is Embiid’s tendency to put the ball on the floor and attack the middle of the lane. He was matched up with a weak big man all night long. So, Boston knew to help as soon as Embiid attacked gaps out of the post. Rather than manipulate his way to baseline drives, Embiid put the ball on the deck and attacked the lane — where all the Celtic helpers could converge on him. He’s not a great ball-handler, and that multiplied pressure and lack of whistle on non-shooting fouls plays right into teams’ game plans. 

Part of that overlaps with ball exposure. Embiid tends to leave the ball exposed when he wrestles down low and play to contact. If Embiid attacks the baseline out of the post, he’s going to seal his defender off with sheer size and finish at the rim or get fouled on the way. Attacking the paint leaves the ball exposed and makes Embiid susceptible to slap-down strips.

He still makes some poor reads as a passer, and Embiid loves to throw non-bullet passes across the court over a pile of traffic. He had at least one of those mistakes on Monday. Those passes must be crisper and not telegraphed. But to be fair, Embiid has generally made great strides as a cross-court passer out of the post.

It’s up to your discretion to credit Embiid for playing through ankle soreness. But, he played over 21 of the 24 minutes in the second half on Monday. That’s an insane and heroic — while also unfortunate — effort by the big guy. Sometimes duty calls and you just have to go to work. But, Embiid should never be logging over 40 minutes in a regular season affair. It speaks to the sense of urgency he and the Sixers felt to win this game. 

What cemented the heroic effort was that Embiid didn’t tire as the minutes ticked upward. He got better in crunch time. And his last three shots of the game — face-up jumpers over Freedom and a help defender — were the purest of the night. He was simply unstoppable, and Curry (26) and Harris (25) were right behind him to provide support.

I don’t know how many games the Sixers are going to win with 1 singular bench point. They shouldn’t make a habit of such a feat, but they survived it in Boston for a sorely-needed victory to start the week.

The Sixers (16-15) will host the Atlanta Hawks (14-15) on Thursday. Tip-off is slated for 7 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.