Joel Embiid after victory over Celtics
Photo by Austin Krell/The Painted Lines

The Philadelphia 76ers (9-5) hosted the Boston Celtics (8-4) on Wednesday. It was this season’s first showdown between the rivals. The Sixers did not play their regularly scheduled game on Sunday due to contact tracing (a team source said there ultimately weren’t any positive tests to report), so they were looking to rebound from a frustrating loss on Saturday night at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies. The Celtics were coming off of a 30-point home loss to the New York Knicks, and were trying to stay afloat amidst a slew of injuries and COVID protocol absences. 

Before we get to business, some notes.

Contextual Notes

Seth Curry remained out despite being cleared to play after following the league’s health and safety protocols. A team source termed his absence a “post health and safety protocol reconditioning period”, and said it was normal considering Curry’s thirteen-day layoff. Vincent Poirier (H/S protocol) and Mike Scott (right knee swelling) remained out for the Sixers, as well. After missing the weekend road trip with right knee pain, Joel Embiid returned to the starting lineup.

The Celtics were without Jayson Tatum and Carsen Edwards (H/S protocol), as well as Romeo Langford (right wrist surgery). Tatum is not expected to be available in the second game of this series, either. The Celtics started Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Grant Williams, and Tristan Thompson.

First Half

The Sixers strategized to chase Kemba Walker through ball-screens in the opening sequences of this game. I thought that plan put Tyrese Maxey, Walker’s first matchup, in a very difficult position. Walker has made a career out of dissecting pick-and-rolls and scoring as a ball-handler. Forcing Maxey to chase him through screens–which were being set by a very solid body in Tristan Thompson–pressures the rookie to find Walker as quickly as possible and risks recklessness. Walker hit a pair of triples early in this game off of high screens as Maxey chased him through.

Going under and inviting Walker to take deeper shots isn’t the answer either. But, it would be a really sensible opportunity for the Sixers to do some switching or hedging on screens. That scheme continued even when Shake Milton entered the game, and Walker continued to feast. He finished the first half with 17 points on 8 field goal attempts.

Early Control Of The Defensive Glass

The Sixers trailed by eight points in the first handful of minutes of play. They were able to amass a sixteen-point turnaround quite rapidly thanks to torrid three-point shooting and controlling the glass. The Celtics secured just one offensive rebound in the first quarter; they missed thirteen of their 21 field goal attempts. The Sixers did a fabulous job of limiting Boston to just one field goal attempt almost every possession, and they were able to silence the Celtics’ early push by flexing their clear advantage on the glass.

Ben Simmons’ struggles continued in this game. He missed out on a number of opportunities to take advantage of size mismatches, electing to kick out to teammates on the perimeter. He also missed a handful of shots around the rim and bowled over a Celtic for an offensive foul. That Simmons has become so perplexingly unable to score is obviously jarring. Part of it is the uncomfortable truth he faces that he simply hasn’t developed on the offensive side of the ball since he came into the league.

The other part could reasonably be that he’s following the mandates of the coaching staff. It could be that the coaches want him to focus on facilitating and funneling shots to his teammates. After all, Doc Rivers has mentioned time and time again that he does not care about Simmons’ scoring numbers. As recently as today, Rivers remarked that he did not care about the fact that his All-Star’s field goal attempts had declined. Maybe that concern builds down the road, but it doesn’t seem to hinder Rivers’ belief in Simmons right now.

Second Half

Kemba Walker did not start the second half of this game. Jeff Teague replaced him in the opening unit. Brad Stevens’ strategy with Walker was to preserve him (20-minute restriction) for the fourth frame. Walker played the last few minutes of the third frame, and then played heavy minutes in the fourth. Overall, he played 22 minutes in the game.

We caught a glimpse of where the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid relationship is on the court. The duo ran a snug pick-and-roll to perfection early in the third frame. The outcome was a beautiful seal and finish from Embiid right under the rim.

The Danny Green Dilemma

Danny Green’s three-point shooting is neither consistent nor prolific enough to look past some of his defensive miscues. There were a number of possessions in this game in which Celtics on the perimeter would throw pump fakes and Green would fly by with reckless close-outs. The poor close-outs pull help-defenders out of position and revitalize a sputtering offense. On the help-side, Green isn’t sliding over far enough to deter ball-handlers charging the rim. Right now, the starting small forward position is looking like an area that needs to be addressed in trade season.

The good that Simmons does on offense sometimes shows itself in subtle ways. Throughout this game, there were a number of scores for teammates who need spacing maximized to be effective. Simmons was the provider of that space, setting off-ball screens to set his teammates up for open looks. He also delivered a handful of terrific passes that generated free throw opportunities or scores, most notably a very difficult pocket pass to a leading Furkan Korkmaz in transition. Korkmaz earned a three-point opportunity and highlight reel dunk.

“We have to recognize when you got a guy going.”

Tobias Harris had a rather quiet third period, but was the generator of a number of scores in the fourth. He still isn’t the cold-blooded scorer that you would hope he could be, but it’s crucial for the Sixers to be able to rely on him for some off-the-dribble offensive production when Simmons and Embiid are resting. Harris did pick up his play in the fourth frame, scoring 9 points and assisting on 8 points.

After the victory, Doc Rivers spoke on Harris’ hot stretches in this game: “He was huge. I thought he was huge early in the game, too. He got off to a good start. I don’t think he got but one shot in the third quarter [actually got two], so we gotta be better there. Everyone does. We have to recognize when you got a guy going. I thought the biggest play, offensively, of the game other than Joel’s points was Tobias’ post-ups. Down low, with Joel being the passer, puts teams in a tough spot.” Harris totaled 22 points on seventeen field goal attempts, along with 5 assists and 3 rebounds.  

Shake Milton threw an errant pass to Harris on a transition opportunity that sailed over Harris’ head and resulted in a turnover and botched fastbreak score. You might brush it off as a poor pass. But, it underscores an important understanding about Shake Milton. While his offensive development has been refreshing and seamlessly fitting for this team, he still has work to do towards becoming a productive passer. That will be the next step in unlocking Milton’s full potential.

“He kind of let it come to him without forcing it, and that’s hard to do.”

As the Sixers made their push to close out this game, they revisited a simple play that they revealed last week in the overtime victory over the HEAT. Rivers went to ‘Delay’, the play to get Embiid some space away from the post and facing up in the middle of the lane in what essentially amounts to a high isolation. It proved effective, as Embiid was able to scan the whole court and assess his best options from there. Embiid finished with a game-high 42 points, 10 rebounds, and 1 turnover. He attempted more free throws than field goals, and he attempted 19 field goals.

Embiid offered some insights into ‘Delay’ after the game: “Playing out of ‘Delay’ actions, that’s good for me because how’re you going to double that? It’s hard to double from the middle of the floor. If you double, we got way too many good shooters for me to kick it out and make the shots.”

After the game, Rivers spoke of Embiid’s dominance: “I love how he played tonight. He kind of let it come to him without forcing it, and that’s hard to do. Every time they double-teamed, he made the pass. Every time they didn’t, he attacked.” Rivers added, “He’s just more talented than even I knew. I knew he was extremely talented. But, he has so many more gifts, you know–off the dribble, he can pick his spots. One of his weak points, I guess, post passing, and he’s been phenomenal with that this year. He’s tough to guard.”

“This team has an ability to dig deep, even when things aren’t going well for them.”

Ultimately, Doc Rivers learned something about his team in his first game on the Philly side of the historic Sixers-Celtics rivalry. He said, “We have had some mental toughness down the stretch. When you look at some of our games, we’ve won two or three games already that way this year. That tells you that this team has an ability to dig deep, even when things aren’t going well for them.” On his experience from both sides of the rivalry, Rivers added, “I’m so used to being on the Boston side of Boston/Philly. What’s funny is that they’re intense both ways. When I was there and now when I’m here, the intensity is the same. So, I thought that was pretty cool.”

Winning the fourth quarter 31-17, the Sixers (10-5) outlasted the Celtics (8-5), 117-109. These two teams will dance again on Friday at 7:30 PM, EST. You can watch it on ESPN.