The Philadelphia 76ers (10-5) hosted the Boston Celtics (8-5) on Friday night. It was the second leg of their two-game home series against their rivals. The Sixers, led by Joel Embiid’s dominant night, won the first leg on Wednesday, 117-109. Embiid and Ben Simmons combined for 35 points in the second half, and the Sixers swept the series with a 12-point victory.
Before we get to the main course, some appetizers.
Seth Curry returned after missing more than two weeks as he followed the health and safety protocols for returning a positive COVID-19 test. The Sixers were still without Vincent Poirier (h/s protocol) and Mike Scott (right knee swelling). For the first time since January 6th, the Sixers presented their normal starting lineup of Simmons, Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Embiid.
The Celtics were still missing Jayson Tatum and Carsen Edwards (h/s protocol), as well as Romeo Langford (right wrist surgery). Brad Stevens went with the same starters he deployed on Wednesday–Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams, and Tristan Thompson.
Curry poured in 8 points on five field goal attempts in thirteen minutes of play in the first half. It is impressive to see any player come back after a two-week hiatus and look fresh from the jump. For a reputed sniper to come in and find rhythm shots with ease and connect on them is quite impressive. From tip-off, Curry was up to speed and did not show any signs of rust.
After the game, Simmons gushed over his shooter: “I love playing with him. He makes the game easier. Sees the floor well. Doesn’t force anything, doesn’t force shots. He’s got a great IQ. The way he plays, he’s unselfish. But, when he’s on fire, he’s on fire.”
The Drop Coverage Test
This game was Doc Rivers’ first test as a legitimate strategist since coming to Philadelphia. This series against the Celtics was the Sixers’ first repeat, playoff-caliber opponent. On Wednesday, Kemba Walker torched the Sixers for 19 points in 22 minutes of play. He was enabled by Rivers’ decision to drop his bigs in pick-and-rolls and have ball defenders fight through screens. That scheme empowered Walker and other ball-handlers to step into rhythm jumpers in space.
As we saw in Brett Brown’s tenure, that philosophy is fundamentally flawed. It is a plan from which coaches must be prepared to adjust away. On Friday, Rivers deployed Simmons as Walker’s primary defender to open the game. But, as the game went on, the Sixers went back to the drop coverage. Walker was less effective in the first half of this game, but Rivers didn’t make any real adjustments to slow Walker. That’s not quite encouraging for a team that needs a coach that will make game-to-game adjustments.
Turnoveritis Strikes Again
The Sixers trailed by three points at halftime. They committed twelve turnovers in the first half. On Wednesday, they committed nine for the whole game. Their laziness and sloppiness on offense made it clear the Sixers were not engaged enough to put this game away early. Embiid was sent to the bench with two fouls late in the first quarter. The Celtics were able to take some control with Dwight Howard in.
Howard committed four turnovers in his first eight minutes of play. A number of those turnovers came from Howard being forced to handle the basketball in the half-court, which is inexplicable. Howard was put in that position by his ball-oriented teammates. They were not showing any initiative to come retrieve the rock from him. His more intuitive off-ball courtmates were not cutting, either. With nowhere to pass and outside of his shooting range, Howard was forced to put the ball on the floor. Turnovers immediately ensued. Turnovers happen; turns bred from laziness are unacceptable.
A lot of those mid-half lulls come from Rivers’ decision to play Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, and Howard together. There is minimal shooting coming from three of the five players on the court. So, spacing is hard to come by. As we’ve all come to know, that means turnovers.
Payton Pritchard left the game in the second quarter after Jaylen Brown fell awkwardly into the rookie’s knee. He was diagnosed with a knee sprain and did not return.
The third quarter was a measure of Embiid’s maturity. Something you rarely see is a particularly animated Embiid, especially when it comes to officiating. He grew particularly frustrated with a lack of calls going his way when he had the ball in his hands. Critical to his growth as an MVP candidate is looking past shoddy officiating and continuing to focus and play.
There were a few plays in which Embiid went down after contact and did not get the friendly whistle. He stayed down and was slow to get back in transition. It did not help that his mentor, Dwight Howard, did the same thing a few times. That may be a habit for the coaching staff to address behind closed doors. Overall, Joel was able to stay calm and focused on the player in front of him, instead of playing to the whistle. The Sixers trailed by as many as 6 points in the third quarter, but Embiid took his frustrations out on the basket, scoring 11 points in the third frame. Philadelphia led 91-80 heading into the final dance of regulation.
Embiid went down clutching his back after a hard fall in the middle of the fourth quarter. After the game, Rivers said that he anticipated Embiid would travel to Detroit. He would not confirm whether Embiid would play on Saturday or Monday, claiming it was too early to tell. After the game, Embiid said, “My back is pretty sore. We’ll see how it feels when I wake up tomorrow.”
Simmons Takes Over
For the first time this season, the Sixers’ offered a glimpse into how dangerous their offense can be when all three of Embiid, Simmons, and Harris are clicking at the same time. When Embiid is in the game, the offense runs through him and the other two are empowered to move around off-ball to score if the opportunities are there. But, it’s largely Embiid’s show. When Embiid is off the court, Harris steps into the spotlight and fills the gap.
Harris had 23 points on twelve field goal attempts and secured 8 rebounds in this game. Jaylen Brown and company were able to cut the lead to three points with under five minutes left in regulation. Simmons came alive at that point, amassing 11 points down the stretch. He scored or assisted on 19 of the team’s 31 points in the fourth quarter.
The last period of regulation was an encouraging sign for Simmons, who has struggled mightily with scoring the basketball through fifteen games this season. After the victory, Simmons spoke on the criticism he receives for his scoring numbers being down: “I’m just focused on winning with this team. Things been good. I’m not on Instagram, I don’t go on Twitter, so I can’t really answer the question. As for what people are saying, though, I don’t give a f**k, honestly.”
“He was so important to why we won that game with all the things he’s doing.”
Doc Rivers added some insights into Simmons’ scoring being down this season, as well. “He didn’t do it until the end of the game tonight. But, he was already playing great and that’s the point I’m trying to make to everybody,” Rivers said.
The head coach continued, “He’s doing so many things for this team, his winning formula is amazing and all the things like last game he got no credit. He was so important to why we won that game with all the things he’s doing. The little cuts, the little back-picks, the rolls and passes. Ben does a lot and so he can’t focus on one thing like focusing on just scoring. He’s too good for that to me. It would be a waste if that’s all I’m focused on for him. What I did like is he went downhill tonight more and finished at the basket. That’s what he has to do. That’s what we’re working on.”
Embiid and Simmons combined for 22 in the final frame. Embiid spoke highly of his teammate after the game: “It all starts on the defensive end. He was a monster. He got a lot of steals [2 in the game, 1 in the fourth quarter]. We got him back in the half-court off the pick-and-roll. There was attacking, it was aggressive and he made plays. He scored a couple baskets, he was huge tonight.” The All-Star duo effectively put the game on ice for Philly, who swept the home series with a 122-110 victory over the Celtics (8-6).
The Sixers (11-5) travel to Detroit to play the Pistons (3-12) on Saturday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 PM, you can watch the game on NBC Sports Philadelphia.