Joel Embiid and James Harden talk under the basket; photo by Austin Krell/TPL

The Sixers (34-18) visited the Boston Celtics (38-16) on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to right its wrongs from Sunday’s loss to the New York Knicks. Boston wanted to build on Monday’s victory over the Detroit Pistons. The Sixers gave yet another putrid defensive effort, letting an undermanned Celtics squad rain threes en route to a 106-99 defeat. 

Before we get to the action, some notes. 

Contextual Notes

The Sixers were without the services of Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats. Louis King and Julian Champagnie are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.

Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.

The Celtics were without the services of Robert Williams III, who has a sprained left ankle. Al Horford missed the game with swelling in his right knee. Marcus Smart was out with a sprained right ankle.

Danilo Gallinari is recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee and was out.

JD Davison is on a Two-Way assignment with Boston’s G-League affiliate and was unavailable.

Joe Mazzulla started Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, and Blake Griffin.


Philadelphia threatened to jump out to double-digit leads twice in the first quarter because of really sound offensive strategy. The concept was simple, Griffin’s knee injuries through the years have left him immobile and unathletic. So, defending in space is a challenge. The Sixers wasted no time targeting that weakness, drawing Griffin into pick-and-rolls to get Harden going downhill against him in drop coverage or Embiid isolated against him in the post.

Those actions collapsed Boston’s interior, creating advantages for the Sixers’ shooters as the Celtics scrambled to rotate around the floor. Boston countered Embiid post-ups with double-teams. But, he read the floor well. Turnovers weren’t an issue for him in this game. If the double came, he was patient and strong with the basketball, searching out the open shooter and swinging the ball his way. IF the double didn’t come, he attacked or pivoted into a face-up so that he could get to his midrange jumper.

Embiid’s fabulous first half carried over to the defensive side of the ball. He made a couple outstanding plays, sniffing out a long cross-court pass for an interception as the free safety and staying straight and on the floor to block a shot away from the rim. Embiid also made his presence known around the basket, threatening drivers with his size and length to disturb shots at the rim.

It’s obviously difficult to fully grade Harden’s night with Brown missing half the game and Horford, Williams III, and Smart out. But, he was spectacular in this one. An efficient scoring night, combining a cluster of triples with some wonderful drives to the basket after dusting defenders off the dribble. But, he also had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 11:1. That won’t be the case every night. But, if he can turn those types of performances against good defenses, the Sixers have a right to feel comfortable resting on his and Embiid’s shoulders.

The offensive limitations are quite clear, but I liked the Tucker-Thybulle pairing coupled with Embiid, Melton, and Tyrese Maxey in the fourth quarter. That unit showed some ability to switch cleanly against Boston’s actions for Tatum. More importantly, the group didn’t look blown away when the Celtics incorporated more complex screening actions. They just switched intuitively across multiple screens or pre-switched depending on the scenario.

The result was a Sixers run, Philadelphia recording a couple of stops to get back into the game. Maybe it’s not necessarily that other trio with Tucker and Thybulle, but the group was largely able to hold its own when tasked with switching across multiple positions. There were certainly fewer miscommunications on screens because there wasn’t as much fighting through. Boston actually had to take contested jumpers — go figure!


The three-point defense has to lead the “Dislike” column. Boston is second in the NBA in threes made per game. You might think that the Sixers have taken note of that, preparing for a potential playoff matchup against a storied rival. And yet, there the Sixers were, giving up uncontested triples. Boston hit 19 triples in the contest, seven more makes than the had in the season-opening matchup between these two teams. And that was a game, by the way, that saw the Celtics get way too many open jumpers. It didn’t feel like the Sixers learned much from that loss, the same issues presenting the second time around. 

Defensive rotations against Boston’s drives and the trail man were absolutely putrid. Ball-handlers had tons of success attacking baseline and kicking to the corners or top of the arc for open triples. Transition or halfcourt, Philadelphia failed to account for the inbound passer as the trail man in the play. Boston was one or two passes and a drive away from flipping the ball back out to the trailer for an open triple.

Another problem was the defense of the short roll. Boston got some of those open corner triples because Philadelphia didn’t pressure the middle of the floor, allowing screeners to catch the ball on the move and connect the other side of the floor as playmakers. You’re not going to take everything away, but defending the pick-and-roll straight up like the Sixers often do allows teams to get back to the open road on side actions. There’s ice coverage for that, which denies the middle of the floor and funnels the ball to the rim-protector by containing the ball to the baseline side. Even the good moments on defense weren’t stapled by ice coverage. Rather, Philadelphia switched on screens. 

Even with Brown missing the second half of the game with a facial contusion, the Sixers’ issues defending the perimeter persisted. A good summation of Philadelphia’s execution on defense on this night was none other than Sam Hauser — a reputed sniper — simply relocating towards the ball-handler, filling the strong-side corner with the ball barely an arm’s length away. Montrezl Harrell was on the court, so a drop coverage was understandable. But, he was nowhere close to the shooter, and there was no teammate close by to help him.

On one hand, that sort of lapse encapsulates the lack of attention the Sixers offered on defense all night long, the primary defender and any helper completely checking out on the shooter. On the other hand, that Harrell is so incapable of guarding in space that any stationary stretch big or small-ball center can simply stand right next to the ball-handler to get an open three speaks volumes to Philadelphia’s depth problem behind Embiid.

We can’t pardon a play like that solely on Harrell’s athletic limitations, either. Harrell wasn’t even close to the shooter. It is those lapses into inattention that make it totally impossible to trust Harrell on the floor as the Sixers get deeper in the playoffs. And if they refuse to trust Paul Reed, that means they absolutely must find another center before the playoffs. Otherwise, there’s little reason to believe this team’s ceiling is much higher than a second round exit. 

On the topic of three-point shooting, you’ll live with Griffin knocking down a couple of open triples. But, when would be a good time to start taking him seriously? Three triples was enough. He knocked down five with no blue jerseys within 10 feet to contest. 

Getting back to transition defense, just terrible once again. This group has looked closer to the team that started the season 0-3. Some of the problem is that junked up offense inherently helps facilitate transition opportunities for the opposition. There were numerous possessions in this game that saw Philadelphia get deep into the shot clock without making any progress.

But, the other issue is that there are guys, including Embiid, at the top of the offense when live-ball turnovers occur. Unless it’s an open-court steal, they can’t just give up on the play. Everyone has to get back, Embiid included. There were a couple of plays in this game in which he checked out on transition when there was a chance to make a play on the ball.

I don’t think it’s fair to blame Rivers up and down for this game’s outcome. The players simply have to wake up from this lull they’re in. Lulls happen over the course of an 82-game season. Can’t get caught up in a couple bad losses when this group has also won 22 of its last 29 games. But, there were a couple things that point back to Rivers.

First, the Sixers were inexplicably double-teaming Tatum in the second half. I can understand that when he has the hot hand, but the star forward totaled 12 points on 15 shots in the game. The issue of doubling him in this game was that he became the Celtics’ main initiator with Brown out for the second half. Say what you want about Tatum, but he has grown as a playmaker for his teammates. He punished Philadelphia’s double-teams all second half, setting up his teammates for countless open threes. It wasn’t necessary for Philadelphia to double him to begin with. But, Rivers was way too late to adjust away from that.

Second, as much of a critic of Matisse Thybulle as I am, this was a golden game for him to get more minutes. Philadelphia erased a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to make it a one-possession affair in the closing minutes. This game had every characterization of a Thybulle game, and he only committed two fouls in the first half. Seeing how this game was trending, there’s no reason he shouldn’t have played more in the second half.

We’ll start some individual performance discussions with Harris and Tucker. The Sixers’ veteran defensive ace actually had an abnormally strong game on offense. But, there were a few possessions in which he had open threes and passed out of them. Harris, on the other hand, was absolutely dreadful on offense. He was shy on catch-and-shoots at various times throughout the game.

Two starters struggling with indecision and passing out of open shots is simply impossible to overcome. There’s no time for timid play when you have a defense in rotation. Every second used to make a decision is another second you gift the defense to reset itself and get guys into proper alignments and position. Tucker at least had an above-average game. Harris, on the other hand, was actively detrimental to Philadelphia’s goal in this game. 

Georges Niang missing threes against legitimate playoff teams is killer. Not only does he draw dead, but him going ice-cold against elite teams draws the whole lineup dead because of the defensive issues he presents. Those teams are big and athletic enough to take away his ability to drive over a large sample size. If he’s not making threes and getting blown off the court on defense, forget it. I’m not saying he should be a trade candidate with the deadline just hours away at this point. But, I do think stretch fours should be added to the target pool of trade candidates.

If you’re worried about Maxey, I think that’s justified at this point. He’s been wildly inconsistent since returning from the foot fracture. You can see his confidence vacillating with his jumper, and he’s trying to force the issue by doing too much on bursts to the rim. If he can’t figure that out, the first step is probably changing the substitution pattern so that he plays more with Embiid and Harden. If that doesn’t work, you might have to put him back in the starting lineup. The young guard just looks lost right now. 

The Sixers (34-19) will host the New York Knicks (30-26) on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia. 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here