After opening the 2018 season with a loss to the Celtics, Joel Embiid stood at his locker and loudly proclaimed Boston’s superior dominance. The Sixers were coming off a disappointing playoff exit and a new season signaled much of the same frustrating problems against its longtime rivals. Many expected the tide to turn when the Sixers flipped their roster upside-down midseason. But a Christmas OT loss followed by a 3 point defeat served to boil up frustrations even further.
Only when both teams aggressively pursued offseason changes did it look as if the tide could potentially turn. And after three matchups this season, it is very clear who the new sheriff in town is. But peaking underneath the hood reveals a story that combines both new personnel with games notoriously decided in the 4th quarter. And that is where we will start a new chapter of Sixers-Celtics.
OFFENSE THRU THE WEAKEST LINK
Prior to this season, much of the public narrative centered on the two coaching combatants. That is, the emerging genius of Brad Stevens against an inferior Brett Brown unable to adjust to his counterpart. And while Boston racked up significant wins, the true subplot depicted a much closer matchup. One that most always landed in crunch time with the game on the balance. For Brett Brown, however, navigating this rope was an extremely difficult task with the previous personnel in place. Boston’s shot creators provided a hard equation to solve late in games. One that guys like JJ Redick, TJ McConnell, and Jimmy Butler simply were not up to the task.
As games inched closer to the final outcome, Stevens’ solution was rather simple more than innovative. Target the shortest and oldest guy on the playground. Celtics shot a combined 7-for-15 against TJ and JJ in the final frame last season. Boston mercilessly attacked the duo, often calling for the advantageous matchup. Stevens also made Jimmy Butler a prime target. A bit overrated by his fading defense, Celtics shot a similar 7-for-15 against Butler alone. Kyrie Irving and Terry Rozier skewered the Sixers’ leaking perimeter defense to the tune of 43 total points (40% of all Celtics points in the final frame). It was an exposé in isolation basketball. And when help came, Boston was more than willing to swing the ball and find the next open shooter. Simply put, the Sixers had a leakage problem that needed to be addressed.
NO MORE EASY CRUNCH TIME BUCKETS. NO MAS!
In order the change the equation and balance the scale, Philadelphia went out of its way to fortify its perimeter defense. In Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle, the Sixers now have capable wing defenders that are rarely picked on defensively. Take a quick look at Richardson, for instance. In their three matchups this season, Richardson has not only provided offensive value, but also turned into the much needed defensive plug. In a sharp contrast to the ‘old’ rivalry days, Boston is shooting a quiet 0-for-10 against Richardson in the final frame. But most importantly, Richardson and Thybulle have contributed in shifting Boston’s late game offense. Yes, Kyrie and Rozier are long gone. But new point guard Kemba Walker has proven to be an inadequate option with a catastrophic 15% field goal percentage late in games.
Stevens, on the other hand, has found little magic in his (shrinking) bag of tricks. Boston’s crunch time offense now comes mostly in the form of Gordon Hayward and … Enes Kanter? Yikes! Through new personnel and scheme design, Philadelphia funneled Stevens’ offense towards the paint. Where Joel Embiid and Al Horford can put their final stamp on the possession. The playground-style bullying stopped on one side. And started on the other.
BULLY SEASON NOW IN SESSION
After three seasons in Boston, Al Horford made a somewhat surprising trip to Philadelphia to join the Sixers’ emerging title hopes. And while much of the hoopla was centered on what Al would contribute, little was made as to what Boston would be losing without Horford. After three matchups, the late game results have been somewhat disastrous for Boston. In particular defensively, where Brett Brown has found ways to exploit Boston’s new center duo of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis. The thought process is somewhat clear. Make a slower Kanter dance in space and stuff a smaller Theis back into the rim. To understand where things have gone terribly wrong for Boston, let’s isolate the last two games. One where Embiid powered through a Celtics small front. Another where Philadelphia exposed Stevens’ attempt to bully up.
YOU WANTED ME TO DOMINATE? OK
A few days after stewing over talk that he was no longer a powerful force, Embiid came into December’s matchup with Boston looking to send a loud and clear message. At the forefront of that message stood all of Theis and his 215 pound frame. Not known much for his physical play, Theis came into the game ranked in the 10th percentile among all post defenders. Not a good look. And Embiid? He was defiantly dominant, bullying Boston to the tune of 19 post-ups. Embiid was assertive, often times backing his defender right under the rim. And when the help came, Joel was decisive in swinging the ball to his open teammates. This type of inside-out offense yielded Philadelphia a total of 19 three attempts with the closest defender 6+ feet away. Mike Scott finished the night 5-for-5 on those looks, providing the Sixers much needed firepower from deep.
For Boston, Theis turned into an unplayable option for Stevens by posting an 188.9 defensive rating in the 4th quarter alone. And while Kanter provided some immediate relief in crunch time, there were very little answers for the physical dominance on display. Embiid finished with 38 points. The Sixers held a +12 rebounding advantage. And a 1 point game swung heavily towards Philly’s favor. But with Embiid now nursing a hand injury, how could Philly duplicate this imposing blueprint?
NO JO? NO PROBLEM
Now fast forward to a month later. This time with Boston clinging to a three point lead going into the 4th quarter. It was at this moment that Stevens made the curious decision to open the frame with Kanter at center. Perhaps it was the idea that the Celtics could duplicate the bully approach with Al Horford resting. Regardless, what ensued was an interesting sequence that immediately swung the score towards Philadelphia’s favor. And cemented Kanter’s path back to the bench. In a mere 2+ minute stretch, Brett Brown called for a series of high pick-and-rolls that exposed Kanter’s lack of foot speed and agility. What followed was an array of open looks for the Sixers primary ball handler. In this case, Josh Richardson. Unable to contest, Kanter found himself in no man’s land as Richardson opened the quarter with 6 straight points. Stevens’ plan had backfired with Kanter posting a horrific 180 defensive rating in those two minutes. Sound familiar?
As for the Sixers, with Theis back in the game, the recipe was more of the same. Attack the rim with Al Horford. Attack the rim with Ben Simmons. A three point deficit quickly ballooned to a double digit lead. And Boston once again found themselves in a familiar situation. Brad Stevens’ bag of tricks now empty, staring at another loss against its big rivals.
SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
With the postseason play on the horizon, a somewhat early playoff date with Boston is very conceivable. Both teams continue to tumble up and down the tightly packed top of the East bracket. But unlike previous years, the Sixers have solved the puzzle in a way that exudes confidence moving forward. Stevens can no longer explore the weak link of this defense, while Brown has smartly exposed Boston’s own deficiencies. The tables have turned. And barring any significant roster changes, one can expect more of the same in a possible playoff series. This time with the confetti blowing up at the appropriate moment!