The Sixers (39-19) hosted the Boston Celtics (43-17) in prime time action on Saturday night. Philadelphia wanted to win its sixth consecutive game. Boston hoped to extend its winning streak to three games. Jayson Tatum knocked down a three with a second to play in regulation to outlast the Sixers in a slugfest, 110-107.
Before we get to the action, some notes.
The Celtics were without the services of Danilo Gallinari, who is recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee.
JD Davison and Mfiondu Kabengele are on Two-Way assignments with Boston’s G-League affiliate and were unavailable.
Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams III.
The Sixers were without the services of Dewayne Dedmon, who has a sore left hip.
Jaden Springer is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats and was unavailable. Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way assignments with the Blue Coats and were out.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, De’Anthony Melton, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The post All-Star break first half rust didn’t hit twice for the Sixers, who came out ready to shoot under the Saturday night lights. Philadelphia took a blow torch to Boston’s transition defense in the opening few minutes of the affair. There was no risky gambling off the ball, no heroic dives into the passing lanes to try to create open-floor opportunities.
Philadelphia simply did something they’ve struggled to do for a while now — played good, old-fashioned man defense. The Sixers were extremely solid, staying disciplined against some stagnant isolation-heavy Boston offense. And just as Boston was sleepy on offense, the Celtics’ urgency to get back and find anyone on defense wasn’t even close to there in the first quarter.
So, there the Sixers were, lighting it up from three in the first couple minutes of the game. After a disastrous first half on Thursday, Philadelphia had to set the tone with clean execution on offense against the Celtics. Another display of nonsense offense in the first half would surely result in a dominant defeat. And so, the Sixers fired away.
There was Harris, rising into a pair of pull-up threes in transition early in the game. Then, Tucker got in on the action with a corner triple of his own. The Sixers delivered the first punch of the game with their offense taking full advantage of Boston’s total lack of desire to get back in transition, opening up a quick seven-point lead in the game’s first few minutes.
As the game evened and both sides exchanged blows, Embiid remained one of the few constants for Philadelphia. The big guy was spectacular all night long, full stop. Thursday saw Embiid sharpen his defensive intensity to make up for the fact that his offensive game largely failed him. Saturday, he was a two-way superstar. He defended with his size, using his body and size to challenge the Celtics around the basket instead of getting his hands involved. When Embiid was in the vicinity, he aggressively challenged, repelling three shots away from the basket. Embiid was more than formidable guarding in space, too, losing no ground against quick dribble moves and footwork.
He was surgical on offense all night long, too. Embiid’s decision-making was mostly stellar, the big fella accepting double-teams with strength and patience and delivering good passes against the extra attention. Embiid made a variety of excellent passes to beat helpers, finding cutters and diming shooters on the opposite side of the floor.
Embiid wasn’t overly reliant upon his jumper, instead electing to go at a slew of bulky Boston defenders inside in pursuit of free throws or shots at the rim. But, when Embiid did go to the jumper, it wasn’t forced. He got to his midrange attempts from his sweet spot at the nail, extended. Even those mostly came in rhythm, Embiid pivoting into a face-up and taking one dribble before pulling up or lifting into shots out of middle pick-and-rolls with Harden.
Even as the game tightened, his decision-making was good. Embiid took any Celtic in his way to the weight room, fighting for position inside and forcing a foul or getting a bucket. He really slowed the game to his speed, getting points on the board for Philadelphia with the clock stopped. Even on Philadelphia’s final real possession of the game, Embiid made the right call. He took a mismatch against Brown and wrestled with him before getting him in the air with a fake, setting himself up for a trip to the charity stripe with a chance to tie the game in the final seconds of the fourth quarter.
Not every Harden game is going to be déjà vu to his prime in Houston. Saturday against Boston certainly wasn’t one of those time machines. But, his will to defend and fight for loose balls lately has been a refreshing development. His dive for the rock secured the Sixers’ win over the Grizzlies on Thursday, and he followed it up by chasing a ball out of bounds and saving it to Embiid in this game. Getting to those 50-50 balls isn’t the whole story, though. Harden is starting to come up with more defensive rebounds, too. But, more than anything, he’s starting to actually guard on the perimeter.
Harden is staying with defensive rotations, present to confront ball-handlers when the swing pass comes their ways. Even just weeks ago, he was late or uninspired to offer much resistance. He would show an initial effort to just make it look like he was trying, and then completely give in to whatever was happening. But, recently — and quite noticeable on Saturday — he’s digging in and pressuring the ball. He defended with balance and motor when the ball got to his man, forcing a pass to the next man or aiding in the Sixers recording a stop.
The ‘Likes’ column wouldn’t be complete without mention of both Harris and Tucker. I am seriously skeptical that Harris will be the version of himself you saw on Saturday consistently when all chips are down in the playoffs. But, his aggression was fabulous in this game. He didn’t let contact affect his jump shot, matching physicality to get to his spots in the mid post. He was even incredibly quick to pull the trigger on threes, ripping the two mentioned above in transition and knocking one down off the catch without a moment of thought early in the third quarter. Harris was quick to drive, as well, catching and going or operating ball screens to get downhill.
One particular play in the first half really summarized just how good Harris’ feel for this game was, cutting to the paint for a pass over the top that got him an easy dunk. Oh, and he was sensational guarding Tatum. He had no problem staying balanced and in front of the slithery wing, and contested without fouling. I have more confidence in Harris being able to hold his ground defending Tatum than I do in him maintaining that speedy mindset for a full playoff run. But, if Harris is playing with that degree of speed behind his decisions in the playoffs, that changes Philadelphia’s ceiling dramatically.
Fans and even some media criticized the decision to give 37-year-old Tucker a three-year deal averaging around $10 million per year. And for most of the season, those critics looked to be right. But, he’s found a new level lately. And Tucker turned in his best game of the season on one of the biggest regular-season stages you’ll see. Tucker canned a pair of triples, which is always nice. But, his rebounding was spectacular.
He halved the Celtics’ total number of offensive rebounds by himself. The 6-foot-5 forward corralled a season-high 16 boards. They weren’t easy ones, either. He beat the Celtics to long floor boards, creating extra offensive plays for Philadelphia. Tucker also emerged with the ball under the basket when surrounded by Celtic trees. I didn’t think his on-ball defense was necessarily great because he didn’t spend much time guarding the likes of Brown and Tatum. But, his off-ball defense, when he stepped into position, was effective and junked up some Boston possessions.
I don’t really care what a 37-year-old undersized forward does on a random Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks in November. If you do, you’re misallocating your energy. They overpaid him to be ferocious in the most important games, and he was just that on Saturday.
The more Tyrese Maxey struggles on offense, the more you can’t help but notice his defensive shortcomings. As soon as Maxey checked into the game, the Celtics went right at him with Derrick White. If it was pick-and-roll, Maxey died on the screens, forcing the screen defender to forfeit space for White to attack downhill or play up to confront him and give up the back side. If it was isolation, the Celtics shot over him. That’s become a theme as of late. Maxey checks in, opposing offenses get a bump from going right at him. The difference is now his offensive weapons aren’t helping him draw even when he’s on the court.
I think part of the issue with Maxey’s offensive inconsistency is that he mostly exists as a table-setter for Harden when they’re on the floor together. Think about it this way — how often do you see Harden jogging his way to the corner because Maxey is bringing the ball up? My memory says it’s rare.
Even if Maxey does bring the ball up, it’s more or less to physically touch the rock before handing it over to the main guys. Last season, Harden was more the table-setter for Maxey. As such, the young guard would go on explosive scoring tangents. Now, it seems as though most of Maxey’s touches come as a cog in the wheel as the Sixers progress through their motions. Or, he’s getting it late in the clock and has to create for himself.
I can understand the rationale of using Maxey as the sixth man because it gives him a context where he can really touch the ball without having to defer. He’s free to chuck as the defense permits. But, a more simplified role as a starter might help him return to form. Even if he starts, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has to finish games, either.
That’s on Rivers to figure out, but bringing Maxey off the bench clearly isn’t working the way many envisioned it would. But, I don’t think there’s much complication to letting your explosive bucket-getter start games so that he can get an easy rhythm going and then adjusting rotations from there as the game calls for it.
Philadelphia saw the tides change once Embiid left the floor to start the second quarter. Part of that is, well, Embiid is just so damn good on both sides of the ball that it’s often inevitable that the Sixers lose some of that momentum. But, another issue was that the Sixers became so stagnant when it was their turn with the ball.
Boston’s switchiness dried up the dribble penetration, and no one could get anything going. There weren’t any creative screening actions to make Boston think about its witches. There was very little movement. It mostly became reductive to Harden trying to create something from nothing. A two-point Philadelphia lead turned into a seven-point Boston advantage before you blinked.
On the topic of the non-Embiid minutes, any conversation about Paul Reed should be framed as “who has the best chance of not being totally obliterated by a good team?”. I say that because you’re lying to yourself if you say that you trust him. We can go back and forth about how he should’ve been given more opportunity to make mistakes in his first two seasons instead of going from nothing to a relatively important role suddenly. But, what’s done is done. Bemoaning over his lack of opportunity in the past doesn’t help you win playoff series now. I will say this, I don’t think anyone can say he’s proven Rivers wrong.
There are some intangible attributes there that the other backup bigs simply do not offer. But, in what was his most important regular season game to date, Reed was largely unaware of what was going on around him. As if the Celtics needed any help, Reed tried to attack a closeout and promptly stepped out of bounds for a turnover. He also interfered with a would-be Sixers basket, erasing two points for Philadelphia in a three-point loss.
That’s not at all to say that Reed is the central focus of any blame in this game. He played less than five minutes. But, Philadelphia was outscored by 14 points in those minutes. He was not at all ready for the big moment. As we get closer and closer to the playoffs, it’s increasingly obvious that the Sixers’ best hope is that Dedmon is surprisingly stable as a rim-protector or lean all the way into Tucker as a small-ball center.
Philadelphia proved more than capable of hanging with the Celtics in this game, building a lead as large as 15 points. I say “as large as”, but the reality is that a 15-point lead is ~ largely ~ nothing in the modern NBA. So, I wouldn’t frame the story of this game as the Sixers blowing some massive advantage. Rather, they lost focus in a game that had far to go before being decided. Just as was the theme the first two times the Sixers played the Celtics, Boston’s three-point shooting really hurt Philadelphia.
Look no further than
former ally double-agent Horford for that one. The Sixers lost him in transition to the tune of four triples in the third quarter, powering the Celtics’ counter-punch. It wasn’t like the Celtics had to work hard to get the home team into rotation, either. Boston was one or two passes away from an open Horford three multiple times in the third frame. And once Horford dropped a couple, everyone else on the away team found their touch.
At the most critical moments of the game, the Celtics either generated open transition threes (White laced one in front of the Sixers’ bench to give the Celtics a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter) or ran multi-screener actions in the half-court to get their shooters open (Tatum curled off a pick to hit one from the wing opposite the Sixers’ bench and give the Celtics’ a five-point lead late in the fourth quarter). They say the three ball is the great equalizer, and it brought the Celtics back into this contest.
Spin this game however you want. Make any grand proclamations that you would like. Rant and rave, foam at the mouth. Whatever is therapeutic for you. Simply put, this was a fabulous game that someone had to lose. On Saturday, it was the home team. Some nights, the home team comes out on the winning end of those fabulous games. But, that wasn’t the case on Saturday. Sometimes, you can lose a game despite your best efforts and star-powered performances. That’s the nature of sports.
Bottom line, the Sixers have largely quelled Tatum in this regular season. Who knows if it will hold up in the playoffs, but that’s a positive trend. They have some things to fix on defense; you might not win one game in a playoff series against the Celtics if you let them average 16 made threes, their average through three regular season matchups between these two teams. But, the Sixers showed that they can play close to this team even when they’re getting nothing from all but four players. But, on Saturday night, the Celtics got the final punch in a slugfest. That’s not a DEFCON scenario. Philadelphia knows what it takes to play close to these guys and give themselves a chance to win.
One thing’s for certain. The story of this game was that Embiid was an A+, Harris was an A, Tucker was an A. Harden was a B. Everyone else was a spectacular F. If the Sixers are going to have any chance of winning a series against the Celtics, Harden needs to be better than a B and Maxey better than an F.
As much as the Sixers lost despite Tatum not being great, the Sixers almost won despite getting nothing from all but four guys. You can call that spin if you’d like, but ask yourself what you’d be thinking if they won this game under the same context. If there’s a four-point spread between doomerism and optimism, you’re focusing too much on the single-game outcome and not enough on the process.
The Sixers (39-20) will host the Miami Heat (32-29) on Monday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on NBA TV.