The Sixers (1-1) hosted the Boston Celtics (1-1) in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Friday. Philadelphia wanted to capitalize on its homecourt advantage and take the upper hand in the series. Boston wanted to steal back homecourt advantage and gain the upper hand with a victory on the road. James Harden and Tyrese Maxey stunk up the joint to ruin Joel Embiid’s MVP homecoming as the Sixers fell, 114-102.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
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.
Blake Griffin has lower back pain and was unavailable.
Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford.
All Sixers were available for Game 3.
Doc Rivers started Harden, Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
There was one positive and one positive only. Embiid looked far more like himself in his second game back from the sprained knee. After holding the Michael Jordan MVP trophy above his head for a few minutes as the crowd serenaded him with appreciation, Embiid went right to work. He was extremely aggressive on both sides of the ball, unafraid to attack the basket out of the face-up and then come down for a heroic block at the rim. Even his second jump on his own misses was excellent, Embiid scoring his own putbacks. He hit the hardwood as much as usual, if not more, but bounced back up every time. Embiid never once appeared bothered by his knee. And, for a guy whose playoff resume underwhelms what he does in the regular season, Embiid did just about everything he could to keep his team in the fight.
Boston double-teamed him more than maybe ever in this game. If they didn’t double, it was an aggressive shade to make perimeter players think twice before entering the rock to him on the inside. No matter, Embiid reacted fairly well to the extra pressure. He made the right passes, finding the open shooter elsewhere on the court to create an open triple or a close-out attack.
Even with the Sixers now trailing 2-1 in the series, the one thing that should give hope is that Embiid still looks like he has all the agility and quickness that he normally has when healthy. Horford had no chance against him in this game. Even when Embiid put the ball on the deck to drive and multiple Celtics converged, there was no stopping him.
The Sixers put themselves at a deficit right off the bat, surrendering a pair of transition threes within the first two minutes of the game. They were discombobulated right off the bat, leaving the second side of the floor open for Boston to get good looks on threes just one or two passes away in secondary transition.
Philadelphia was caught in no man’s land on the second side of the floor, one Celtics shooter in the corner and the ball in the hands of an enemy jersey on the wing. One friendly stuck in the middle trying to decide how to contest. If he commits to the ball, it’s an easy pass to the corner for an open three or baseline drive. If he stays home or takes to the guy in the corner, Boston had an open three or drive from whoever had the ball. So, it was a pick-your-poison situation because the Sixers were too slow to get back.
That was just the start of the early punch in the mouth Boston delivered. Even within the confines of the halfcourt, the Celtics got open threes. On the live watch, it seemed like the Sixers were stretched more on passes from the paint to the weak-side corner. The theme, as it has always been, is dribble penetration. Boston broke through the front line and found the paint, causing the initial help to rotate to stop the bleeding.
It was when the back line of help rotated away from position that the Sixers fell into the trap. They stood no chance of recovering to the weak-side corner when the Boston driver rifled passes from the paint to the empty side. The Celtics canned their first four makes from deep in this game because of the transition and weak-side ball movement. Philadelphia was in a 10-point hole before the blink of an eye.
There were two main differentiators between the Sixers and Celtics in this game. First was Harden’s decision-making. He and Embiid were clearly a bit off pace as they tried to run the two-man game in crowded spots, efforts to thread the needle on passes resulting in turnovers. It wasn’t much better as Harden tried to drive and kick with multiple Celtics converging on him. His shots at the rim met enemy hands, the ball never coming close to finding the net. Harden tried to flip passes to corner shooters. But, the Celtics were there to disrupt. Harden headlined a half in which the Sixers lost the turnover battle by five miscues. He turned the ball over five times on his own, helping the Celtics get run-outs and good shots on their end of the floor.
You can survive a five-turnover game. It was what ensued as the game went on that was totally unrecoverable and, truthfully, unacceptable. All it took was a couple of blocked layups from Robert Williams III for Harden to lose interest in being aggressive as an attacker. Suddenly, shots that he had no problem taking in the first game of the series — floaters, pull-up twos, and threes — were arduous decisions for him to navigate. Harden had plenty of space on numerous touches. But, he passed out of those looks for no good reason, eliciting boos from the Philadelphia faithful.
He wasn’t the only one struggling mightily to even find the courage to attempt shots. Jalen McDaniels stared down a couple of open looks before ultimately forfeiting the opportunities to do something else with the ball. Tucker caught the ball with plenty of space a few times and turned down open looks.
It was as if all of the old Ben Simmons issues came back in full force. It infected not just two role players but the lead ball-handler, who was once a league scoring champion and MVP.
The other differentiator was Maxey’s play. He was relentless in attacking the basket. The problem was that he had no chance with longer Celtics draped all over him and Williams III lurking around the interior. There were a number of possessions in which Maxey stared down makable threes. Instead, he elected to drive for out-of-control layups that didn’t have a prayer.
Harden and Maxey combined to shoot 7-for-30 in approximately 40 minutes each. Harris only took six shots all game. Simply put, Embiid had zero help in this game.
Still, every statistical talking point was damn near even. Philadelphia won the free throw battle. The teams drew even in three-point makes. Boston won the turnover battle by one. The grand separator was the will to make big plays down the stretch. For the second game in a row, the Celtics beat the Sixers to loose balls when the contest hung in the balance.
The Celtics got to offensive rebounds to create extra plays after their misses, forcing the Sixers to try to string together more stops than they should’ve had to. So, the Celtics answered every run the Sixers made to barge back into the game. They gutted Philadelphia with timely threes or second-chance scores to silence the momentum.
The Sixers (1-2) will host the Celtics (2-1) in Game 4 of this series on Sunday. Tip-off is scheduled for 3:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.