The Sixers (23-17) hosted the Boston Celtics (21-21) on Friday night. Philadelphia intended to right its wrongs from a loss to the visiting Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday. Boston wanted to push its winning streak to four games. A monster run in the first quarter put the Sixers in front by 20 points, and Philly never looked back en route to a 111-99 victory.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
The Celtics were without the services of Marcus Smart, who is in the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocol.
Sam Hauser was on a Two-Way assignment with the Celtics’ G-League affiliate and was not with the team.
Ime Udoka started Dennis Schroder, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams III.
The Sixers were without the services of Danny Green, who was nursing pain in his right hip.
Shake Milton missed the game with a back contusion. Prior to the game, Doc Rivers revealed that he doesn’t expect Milton to return for an extended period of time.
Jaden Springer and Braxton Key were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats.
Ben Simmons is not mentally read to play and continued his absence from the team.
Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
If you’re looking for a fantastic race between speed demons, a one-on-one between Tobias Harris and Al Horford is the event for you! In all seriousness, it’s incredible to watch them go against each other because it’s almost like you’re watching someone dump molasses on the court at the specific spot on which they’re dancing. Horford certainly wins the physical battle and can knock Harris down a few steps to get close enough to the rim to execute. But the shared degree of indecision — mixed within the context of a theoretically fast-paced basketball — is quite deceptive and something of an optical illusion.
An early triple from Jayson Tatum gave the Celtics a 10-4 advantage. But after that, it was all Sixers for the remainder of the first frame. A Payton Pritchard jumper in the closing seconds of the quarter spelled an 8-minute run in which Boston converted just 1 field goal. And when the Celtics weren’t flinging up incomprehensibly bad shots, the Sixers were disrupting their lobs to the rim and getting out in transition. Aside from some finishes at the rim, the Sixers put some distance between themselves and the Celtics with three-point shooting. Philly found the net four times from deep in the opening quarter.
He doesn’t always show it, but Matisse Thybulle’s ability to recover from a helper back to a shooter from extended distances is ridiculous. He recorded one of his patented side-swipe blocks on a recovery to Jaylen Brown as he elevated for a three-point attempt. Beyond that, Thybulle’s length irritated Boston all quarter long. He played their ball-handlers aggressively and played to his instincts as a disruptor. A masterful defensive period from him helped Philly get out in the open court on a number of occasions in the opening stanza.
Thybulle and former Sixer Josh Richardson got into a small scuffle after the latter went to unnecessary lengths to pull him down as he rose for a transition layup towards the end of the first frame. It takes a lot to ruffle Thybulle’s feathers, so kudos to Richardson for finally doing something impressive for the first time since his Miami days.
Joel Embiid’s rim-protection was sensational in his brief stint in the second quarter. The Sixers did a tremendous job, as a unit, funneling Boston drivers to the big fella, and the Celtics were merely praying for the best. The greatness in Embiid’s rim-protection is his discipline. He almost always maintains verticality when contesting a driver looking to conquer the mountain that stands in his way. Embiid just raises his arms and jumps straight up, and it’s basically the equivalent of trying to go through a brick wall to convert a layup.
The Sixers saw success working the ball inside on high-low actions between Tobias Harris and Embiid. Often posted up on the same side of the court, the entry pass would be made to Harris while Embiid sealed off his counterpart at the block. But the entry pass to Harris was little more than a bridge connecting the player at the top to Embiid. The Celtics did eventually catch wind of what the Sixers were trying to do and threw aggressive doubles. But, Embiid was able to maneuver himself into the restricted area and generate offense, whether it be off of passes or scores.
Boston went zone early in the third quarter in an attempt to stall Philly’s offense. As I wrote in Wednesday’s game story, teams are starting to incorporate that as part of their regular game plans against the Sixers because they know that Philadelphia rosters a plethora of hesitant or simply unskilled shooters. The danger is that the Sixers appear legitimately disturbed when it happens, so it’s clearly a solution that lacks a consistent counter.
You even saw Embiid chuck a pair of threes early in possessions in an effort to strain Boston’s zone. Tobias Harris even deposited a short jumper fading across the lane to release some of the pressure posed by Boston’s zone. Harris needs to play a significant role in Philly’s offense if it’s going to have any chance of solving zones when good teams deploy them. Zone defenses will typically grant your offense three-point looks and a sweet spot in the midrange. Harris’ typical comfort zone is the area comprising the midrange level. The problem is that Harris’ fall from grace has bled into his shooting.
He’s become increasingly timid as a midrange shooter, in addition to his regular degree of shyness in taking threes. This season, Harris is connecting on 42 percent of his midrange looks. That ranks in the 62nd percentile for forwards. So, it’s not bad by any means. The problem is that it needs to be better than floating above the league average.
Theoretically, Rivers could switch where Embiid and Harris are positioned within the zone offense. Given Embiid’s growth as a playmaker, you might argue that that is even a more effective strategy than having a limited playmaker like Harris catalyzing your offense in the sweet spot of the zone. But, Embiid’s midrange shooting has actually been worse than Harris’ has this season. Beyond that, playing Embiid high in the zone will ultimately result in teams countering with a 3-2 zone.
Dennis Schroder laid a hand on Thybulle with just enough energy behind it to aid the wing in tumbling to the ground on his back without a way of breaking his fall on a fast break dunk in the third quarter. It looked pretty unintentional, and Schroder was only given a Flagrant 1. Similar plays in the past have resulted in ejections. In fact, an identical play some years ago broke Andrew Bogut’s arm and altered his career. Amar’e Stoudemire was ejected for the contact that sent Bogut to the ground. Thybulle was able to stay in the game and even buried a corner three on the next possession, but eventually left the game with right shoulder soreness and did not return.
The Sixers struggled to break Boston’s full-court press in the fourth quarter. The game was mostly out of reach and perhaps the effort just wasn’t there anyway. But, the Sixers just don’t have the speed or ball-handling prowess to beat presses in a timely fashion given the way they progress up the court making passes from left to right instead of trying to beat a defender up the court with speed.
The maddening part is that Tyrese Maxey is that type of ball-handler. He should be able to beat it by himself. But, the Sixers insist on moving the ball from player A to player B to move up the court. If you’re trying to break the press, why not just bring your middle man (typically sits at half-court when you’re breaking a press, anyway) up to screen for Maxey and let him run?
Embiid tried to end Aaron Nesmith’s existence with a full-court drive for a dunk. The dunk didn’t go down, and Embiid was eventually assessed with an offensive foul for the play. But, the energy it packed exorcised some demons from the loss to the Celtics in Game 3 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Sixers (24-17) will visit the Miami Heat (26-15) on Saturday night. Both teams will be on the second legs of back-to-backs. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.