Wilson Chandler thought about it, set his feet, took his time, and let it fly. All net. His three-pointer from the far wing with 36 seconds left put the Sixers up two points and all they needed was one stop. One. Jimmy Butler was glued to Kyrie Irving in the Celtics’ out-of-timeout play with 36 ticks left. It was an iso for Kyrie, 1on1 for the game. Jimmy played Kyrie beautifully, matching Kyrie move for move. Kyrie got the slightest bit of space and let go a fade-away jumper from 10 feet. The ball nicked the rim, popped up, and went through – tie game. Brett Brown elected to let the kids figure it out. The play Ben Simmons conjured up? A dribble hand-off to JJ Redick for a midrange jumper. The shot was just off the mark and the game was going to overtime.
The Celtics had second life, and they wouldn’t take it for granted.
The Sixers were oh-so-close. But in a game that would’ve served as a measuring stick for how close they are to being amongst the elite teams in the league, they ultimately fell short. And the same old problems cost them a victory in Beantown on Christmas Day.
I say this in every single episode of my podcast. Win or lose, this team’s bench is putrid. The league average is 37.3 bench points per game. The Sixers sit at 34.3 bench points per game (22nd). Don’t be fooled, the bench has had a couple of over-achieving games in recent weeks to bring that average up some. Three weeks ago, they averaged 6 points less than the league average. That may not seem like a lot, but the Sixers average point differential is +2.5. In other words, the average outcome of a Sixers game is the Sixers winning by less than three points. So, in these close losses, the bench production spells the difference. Christmas night? The bench scored 13 points. Mike Muscala shot 1/9 from the field to lead the bench in field goal attempts, while the bench amassed a 5/18 night from the floor overall. 13 points in a game that lasted 53 minutes. That is unacceptable.
As is usually the case in Sixers losses, turnovers really burned them in this latest matchup with Boston. The team averages 15.1 turnovers per game (26th in the league), but on Christmas, they turned it over 19 times. That number equated to 22 points for the Celtics. Being in its second year together, it is unacceptable that the core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and JJ Redick accounted for 11 of those 19 turnovers. Although it was a seven point margin of victory for the Celtics that required an overtime period to get there, reducing the turnovers would have led to a Sixers victory in regulation.
According to the fanbase, Joel Embiid has led the Sixers to a 22-0 record, while Brett Brown has guided them to an 0-13 start. This narrative that Brett Brown is the problem must stop.
The overwhelming population says that Joel Embiid must have the ball late in the game. While he is the team’s best player and easily the most dominant player on the floor any given night, there is a disturbing trend in Embiid’s game. He becomes a turnover liability in late-game situations. Logging 34 minutes per game at his size, Embiid is fatigued late in games when he is asked to carry the load against more formidable opponents.
What happens is that he slows down upon catching the ball and immediately gets double-teamed. This forces him into a tough spot because he must make the right pass quickly to take advantage of the double. More often than not, this results in a turnover–by bad pass, travel, out-of-bounds, or offensive foul. Tuesday night in Boston, Joel committed six turnovers. 6. To put it simply, there must be an effort to get the ball to Embiid on the low block in a close game, but there must be an understanding of when and how to get it to the big man.
Brett Brown did not call a timeout on the final possession of regulation in the Christmas showdown, electing to allow Ben Simmons to run the offense. The result was a dribble hand-off to JJ Redick for a long midrange jumper that did not find the basket. No, it was not the right play. Should Brett Brown have called a timeout? Perhaps. However, Ben Simmons is the point guard. He is supposed to be a superstar. Brett shouldn’t hold Ben’s hand and guide him through a play. Ben will never get better that way. Brown elected to allow Ben, his superstar point guard, make the decision. Ben failed, and he needs to do better than a Redick dribble hand-off.
There is one question I have for Coach Brown, and it involves JJ Redick’s defense. For the entire first half, JJ was the primary defender on Kyrie Irving. This proved costly, as Irving lit him up for 23 first half points en route to a 40-point outing. My question is, why didn’t Brown match Redick with Marcus Smart, a completely different offensive player than Irving? While Smart can bully JJ as a post-up guard, Irving, arguably the best 1-on-1 scorer in the league, would feed right into Redick’s weaknesses on defense. This was a matchup choice that I knew would hurt the Sixers from the opening possession.
Ultimately, there would not be nearly as much to say about Brett Brown if these close losses weren’t happening. Ultimately, these close losses occur because the bench is so incomprehensibly underwhelming. Against the Celtics, the bench did not score a single point in the first half. They scored 13 for the game, while the Celtic bench scored 25. A 12-point differential in a 7-point overtime loss. Hmm…
Defense on Al Horford
On Christmas morning, I compiled a video breakdown of how the Sixers could correct their defensive mistakes from their first matchup against the Celtics. One of the things I felt would be a key to beating the guys in green would be the Sixers’ defense of Al Horford. In previous matchups, they would switch or hard-hedge the screen, allowing Horford to step back and take an open three or long-two. These types of open looks and wild close-outs on Horford pulled the Sixer defense out of position and ultimately allowed the Celtics to make plays for each other.
Later that day, Brett Brown showed that he had watched film of his team’s defense. The Sixers went with a soft hedge or hybrid hedge on Horford, quickly shutting down the drive and then immediately recovering to Horford to ensure that, at the very least, Horford would have to settle for a contested jumper. This adjustment payed off, as Horford was held to 4 points on 2 of 10 shooting (0 of 5 from three-point range).
Turn That Frown Upside Down
Yes, the Sixers suffered a frustrating loss on Christmas Day. Yes, they should have won the game. But, keep in mind that the Sixers opened the season with the exact same roster as last season and lost a 105-87 decision that set the tone for what the season would look like if changes weren’t made. Elton Brand responded in the first few weeks, acquiring Jimmy Butler from the Timberwolves in a trade that legitimately wrecked the Sixers’ depth, but netted them the shot-creating third star that they need to contend. Before the trade, they were 2 games above .500; since the trade, they have increased that margin by 7 victories. The Christmas Day loss in Boston, a 7-point decision in overtime, in a game that the Sixers truly had control of until the last 90 seconds of overtime, was a measuring stick for the Sixers. While a loss is a loss, the ability of the Sixers to remain tough and put the Celtics up against the edge late is a sign that they are much closer than they were two months ago.
We’ll see just how good the Celtics play when they come to Philadelphia. And as things stand, the Celtics would have to play on the road in any series against the Sixers. I have confidence that the Sixers would be able to win a series against this team if they have the home-court advantage. It is clear that the Sixers have their core to challenge the league’s elite teams come playoff time, it’s just a matter of getting the right pieces to solidify the bench. It’s only a matter of whether Elton Brand finds those pieces later this season (buy-out or trade deadline) or this summer. For now, I leave you with some words from esteemed writer Ben Detrick:
Rest easy Sixers fans, they are almost there.
Austin Krell (@Austin_PFO6ers)