The Sixers (1-0) faced the Boston Celtics (0-1) in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Wednesday. Philadelphia wanted to take a commanding 2-0 series lead before heading back home for Games 3 and 4. Boston wanted to tie the series before hitting the road. A brutal third quarter spelled the difference in a 121-87 loss to send the series to Philadelphia tied at one game apiece.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the stage.
25 hours after being named the 2023 NBA MVP, Joel Embiid made his return from a sprained right knee.
Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
The Celtics were without the services of Danilo Gallinari, who is out for the season as he recovers from a torn ACL in his left knee.
Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford.
You expected heightened intensity on both sides for Boston, their season suddenly hanging in the balance after giving away Game 1 in their building. Still, there was a touch of nervous energy from the home team, open jumpers from beyond the arc toilet-bowling the hoop before spinning off. It was when the Celtics tried to get to the rim that you got the first test of how Embiid’s knee felt. He offered a great contest on a White floater just outside the rim, altering the shot to miss off the back of the iron. Embiid also made a rotation from one side of the lane to the other, rejecting a would-be layup from Smart.
Embiid recorded a staggering five blocks in the first half. But, there wasn’t always a chance to make a play on the ball. Still, Embiid’s impact at the rim was evident. Bad knee or not, all he had to do was step in the direction of a driver to seal the crack in the dam. Even if you expected rust after a near two-week lay-off, it isn’t exactly shocking that Embiid felt good. The biggest thing is how he feels when he wakes up on Thursday. More importantly, does the knee swell up?
But, unlike with past injuries, he didn’t wear discomfort on his face or in his body language. He moved well and stayed extremely active. It wasn’t the most dominant start on offense for the big guy. But, he showed that he isn’t just a passenger in this series because of the sprained knee. And, perhaps Boston’s chances of winning this series, especially after coughing up Game 1, hinge on Embiid serving more as a fifth guy on the court than the clear-cut MVP. He wasn’t the latter of the two in the first half, but the difference in defensive prowess was clear just by Embiid being on the court. A very good start to his first game back.
The biggest swing factor in this series might be Maxey seemingly figuring out how to score against the Celtics after not being able to do anything against Boston in the regular-season series. Granted, there were multiple variables at play for Maxey in two of the four matchups between Boston and Philadelphia. First, a short time after a stinker in the second game between these two teams in Boston, Maxey admitted that he had been dealing with some mental health issues. In the third matchup — a Sixers home loss — Maxey was still trying to navigate the ups and downs of coming off the bench.
But, you can counter those excuses by pointing to the struggles he faced as a starter in the season-opening loss in Boston and the final matchup between these teams in Philadelphia. Besides Embiid’s health, both Harden and Maxey being reliable in this series was always going to be the difference between the Sixers winning and losing this series. Game 1 wasn’t the most efficient outing by Maxey’s standards, but he came alive in the second half to help Harden drive home a shocking victory sans the MVP. Although his night was cut short due to the blowout fashion of this game, Maxey followed his Game 1 performance with a reasonable 13 points on 14 shots in Game 2.
He still struggled with bouts of indecision, eating too many seconds off the shot clock before making up his mind with little time to spare. But, Maxey was extremely effective and aggressive in attacking the basket. More encouraging, he did it in both the halfcourt and transition environments. Maxey even had a creative counter to being defended by a rangy wing when he couldn’t get the first step around him, pulling up and faking on a drive to get Brown in the air before pivoting to the rim for an uncontested layup.
Perhaps this was always there, and it was easier for him to figure things out when he had a week to watch film and think about this series. But, Maxey had answers on consecutive nights in an extremely hostile environment. That’s a massive strike in the Sixers’ favor with a maximum of five games left in this series.
Tucker might be the poster child of gritty junkyard dog types of role players. And he’s had some as-advertised moments thus far in these playoffs. But, specifically for this series, Rivers might need to make a decision if Tucker continues to pass up open shots. Boston isn’t guarding him, and that’s drying up the offense elsewhere on the floor. He had a pair of record-scratching moments in the first half, turning down wide-open corner threes. Those need to fly because Boston can’t just survive stopping four steps short of a legitimate close-out.
This didn’t exactly matter in the grand scheme of the game. But, Tucker also committed a ridiculous moving screen foul against Brown, intentionally throwing a shoulder into his chest. I get standing up for your pride and trying to set a tone with toughness, but that foul was so obvious and killed a possession when Philadelphia’s offense was totally dehydrated. Not a good night from him.
The Sixers finally having some athletic chops deeper down their roster is perhaps one of the biggest reasons this team can be different than previous teams of this era. But, some of Jalen McDaniels’ mistakes in this game are what you might point to if his minutes shrink as this series goes on. He was out of position on a couple of threes from Malcolm Brogdon in the first half. McDaniels strayed so far away that there was no point in offering a contest when the ball swung the guard’s way. He also committed an undisciplined foul on Tatum, overreacting to the forward’s aggressiveness by giving too much contact despite having the Celtics star in a disadvantageous spot on a drive to the paint.
Difficult to criticize missed shots, which the Sixers saw a ton of in this game. But, the dam broke in the third quarter. We can point to the three-point disparity between these teams. But, the Sixers didn’t give themselves a chance by making up for the cold shooting with effort plays. They lost every loose ball, failing to put up the fight necessary to keep possessions alive or turn the Celtics over in chaos. The problem with not getting to those loose balls on defense is that it usually results in kick-outs for open threes.
Embiid’s teammates were nowhere to be found when he tried to make contests at the rim. That left the back-side open for the Celtics to crash and create extra plays on their possessions. You can’t be minus-14 in three-point makes and lose the effort battle. And it felt like as the bricks piled up, the effort faded. And that was when the Sixers lost sight of this game.
Speaking of losing sight, no need to sound the alarms with the series tied 1-1. It’s important to remember that the difference in this game was essentially one horrendous quarter. The Sixers were down by eight points at halftime. The fatal blow was the third quarter, which they lost by 19 points.
Sure, Boston’s shooting was very good all game. But, the Sixers weren’t thoroughly dismantled from tip-off to final buzzer. The difference between them coming home up 2-0 and tied 1-1 is one quarter. And, by the way, that one quarter came in a game that Boston absolutely had to win to avoid a near death sentence of being down 2-0 heading on the road. If you’ve watched the Sixers all year long, you’d know that all of their blowout losses followed one specific trend. One quarter that was a total disaster. This wasn’t an abnormality for the Sixers.
Whether they admit it or not, they probably knew they only needed one of the first two games in Boston. If the Celtics didn’t respond in Game 2, that would’ve told you they have no heart. The Celtics are a good team. The Sixers are a good team. This series wasn’t going to be a cake-walk. Now, they have to go take care of business in their house and win two games in front of their home crowd.
The Sixers (1-1) will host the Celtics (1-1) in Game 3 of this series on Friday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the game on ESPN.