After a frustrating performance and disappointing outcome in the first game of their first round series, the Sixers battled with the Celtics in game two on Wednesday night. The Sixers, who committed 18 turnovers and granted the Celtics 15 offensive rebounds, were looking to get back to the fundamentals to try to tie the series up.
Before getting to the game, some notes:
After an impressive showing as Jayson Tatum’s primary defender, Matisse Thybulle was exchanged into the starting lineup for Al Horford. The remainder of Brett Brown’s starting unit remained status quo.
Gordon Hayward will miss the remainder of the series after suffering a Grade III sprain of his right ankle in the closing stages of game one. Brad Stevens elected to promote guard Marcus Smart to Boston’s starting unit.
Jayson Tatum picked up two fouls in the first four minutes of play. The Sixers did not seem interested in pressuring him on the defensive side of the ball, as the offense did not look to target the star forward. Conventional wisdom would say to target him on the offensive end; he’s either going to commit his third foul and pressure Boston’s rotations for the remainder of the game, or concede lines to the basket to avoid committing fouls. Stevens got him out before he committed another foul, and the Sixers did not take advantage of the opportunity. If you needed any indicator of Thybulle’s role in this game, Brown replaced Thybulle with Horford as soon as Tatum exited the contest.
Embiid was locked in through the first quarter of play, aggressively hunting scoring opportunities out of low-post face-ups against smaller defenders. He scored 15 points in the quarter. He also handled defensive pressure much better than he did in the first game. Embiid read coverages with much better speed, identified open shooters, and delivered passes accurately. Philadelphia’s offense, as a whole, benefitted mightily from Embiid’s improved post play, and the Sixers scored 33 points in the first session.
Same Old Story
As good as the Sixers’ offense was in the first frame, their defense shed a lethal crack that the Celtics were more than happy to exploit. Well, I say ‘shed’ as if the Celtics unearthed something; the Celtics, as many others have, crushed the Sixers in the pick-and-roll. Brown continued to buy into dropping a big to the rim, and the Celtics were running Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum through high screens. With the big dropped, the Celtics feasted on open jumpers from both three-point range and within the arc all game long. Boston connected on thirteen of their twenty-one field goal attempts in the second scene.
To make matters worse, as Boston found its rhythm, the Sixers lost theirs. Suddenly, every 76er not named Joel Embiid was ball-watching while Embiid tried to literally score every point. Tobias Harris, who took as many shots in the second frame as Embiid did, missed four of his five field goal attempts and contributed just three points for the quarter. That figure tells you all you need to know.
It’s not hard to see how the Sixers lost the second period by fourteen points, and saw a fourteen-point lead flip into an eight-point deficit at halftime.
You know, there just isn’t a ton to write about from the second half of this game–and that’s because the Sixers did not show anything worth discussing. The Sixers connected on four field goal attempts in the entire frame. It would’ve been uglier if free throws didn’t exist. The Celtics put the affair away in the third frame, winning it by fifteen points.
Instead of discussing observations and trying to sell positive narratives, I’m going to try something different.
There is no universe where Raul Neto should be playing just one minute less than Alec Burks is. On Wednesday, Burks–who scored eighteen points in 28 minutes on Monday, played just eighteen minutes in game two. Raul Neto played well in the final three seeding games, but it is unexplainable that he plays fourteen minutes while Burks plays fifteen. Not only is Burks far and away the best scorer on the bench, he may be the second best scorer on the roster right now. He’s also the best shot-creator and ball-handler on the roster. Brett Brown may not think he runs the offense to perfection, but it is unacceptable that he only grants Burks fifteen minutes.
A Telling Defensive Lapse
There was a play in the early stages of the fourth quarter during which Jayson Tatum was afforded a wide-open triple from the left wing. The comical degree to which he was unperturbed stemmed from the fact that Burks and Shake Milton were confused by their defensive assignments. Just to remind you of the context, two guards in the regular rotation were so confused by a defensive assignment that they weren’t even aware that they were allowing Tatum to step into an open three. Tatum, by the way, connected on eight triples in the game.
That, to me, is a microcosmic example of how deep this team’s defensive problems run. At this stage in the season, when the team has had time to watch film together and work on things in practice, it is inconceivable that two guards entrusted with regular minutes are so lost on defensive. Not only is it a damning indictment on their individual awarenesses, but it also serves as an indicator of how the players feel about Brett Brown’s defense (or lack thereof).
Josh Richardson, Wake Up
Josh Richardson has shown a knack for playing too far up towards the wing when his assignment is positioned in the corner. That, in and of itself, is an invitation for offensive players to back-cut him for easy layups. All they have to do is tip-toe the baseline and catch the ball-handler’s eye. When he’s not standing in the wrong spot and leaving himself vulnerable to cuts, his head is not active.
You are taught from a very young age to play off-ball defense by identifying a mutual visual mark that will keep both your man and the ball-handler in your line of sight. That visual mark is supposed to help you maintain awareness of where your man is and where the ball is, effectively making off-ball defense a lot less difficult than it has to be. Josh Richardson consistently makes those fundamental mistakes, and he has hurt the Sixers with that poor off-ball awareness. Mind you, prior to coming to Philly, Richardson had established a reputation as a premier defender in the league.
Time To Step Up
I have evaluated Tobias Harris from the perspective that he is undervalued. Many others have chosen to weigh him with Jimmy Butler (I get it, but why is he the one always compared to Butler when Horford was signed, as well?). For that reason, they neglect his production as a scorer and as a shooter. While he is overpaid, he got his market value last summer. Having said that, he has not been anywhere close to good enough in the first two games of this series.
When Ben Simmons went down with injury, he had to be the second best player on the team for them to have a chance in this series. Harris has responded with 28 points across two games, shooting just 10-for-30 from the field. He has yet to make a triple in the playoffs, and has only attempted five across the first two games. Brett Brown, if you recall, spoke of the importance of Harris seeking three-point shots before the playoffs began. Considering the decision to move Horford to the bench was partially intended to make Harris more comfortable at his natural power forward position, it is time for Tobias Harris to step up and be aggressive. Go up stronger at the rim, seek contact, and help space things for Embiid by attempting three-point shots.
Al Horford, arguably a Hall-of-Famer and still only 33 years old, has scored 10 points, secured 9 rebounds, dished 6 assists, and blocked 2 shots through two games. Injured or not, he has been a revolving door on the defensive side of the ball all season. Attacking wings and guards have shredded him with lateral movement as they follow a straight line to the goal. While it has obviously been a frustrating season for Horford, whether he wants to admit it or not, this is more than just a square peg in a round hole. This is a matter of dignity, at this point.
Against his former club, across two games, Horford has put up a line that would be considered ordinary if a player making $97 million guaranteed produced it in just one game. If the veteran center is going to go down in the first round, he might as well go down with pride. As of now, the Celtics are getting away with starting Daniel Theis, and things seem just fine despite their former glue guy suiting up for a historic rival.
It might be time to stop dropping Embiid to the rim when opponents run pick-and-rolls. For years, role players have had career games against the Sixers because of that one segment of Brown’s defensive strategy. It is likely too late for that alteration to change the complexion of this series. But, it just makes no sense to continue to get beat in the same way every night.
While Brown’s theory of preaching offensive concepts instead of structured sets may work with teams that understand how to play together and are experienced winners, this iteration of the 76ers runs on the energy of two players who have glaring weaknesses and have never made it past the second round of the playoffs. This offense has always lacked structure, and it direly needs it. It’s worth wondering how much different the past two seasons would’ve played out if the offense had some structure, but these concepts of letting things unfold organically has proven to be fatal for a group built around two ill-fitting offensive players.
The Sixers fall in a 2-0 hole to the Boston Celtics, losing 128-101 in game two. They will try to avoid a 3-0 death sentence on Friday night at 6:30.