The Philadelphia 76ers (11-10) visited the Boston Celtics (11-10) on Wednesday night. Both teams were looking to establish winning streaks with second consecutive victories. The Sixers shot 37.1 percent from the field in an ugly 88-87 loss.
Before we get to what I saw, allow me to set the scene.
Ben Simmons is still not mentally ready to play and was not with the team.
Grant Riller was out with a sore right shoulder.
Aaron Henry (Two-Way), as well as Paul Reed and Jaden Springer, were on G-League assignments with the Blue Coats.
Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
All Celtics were available on Wednesday.
Ime Udoka started Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, and Robert Williams III.
Tobias Harris pump-faked his first catch from beyond the arc and stepped in, and then realized he hesitated for a pull-up midrange jumper before stepping back for a three. He made a similar decision in the fourth quarter of the Minnesota game, but elected to dribble into a pull-up midranger. You could clearly see Rivers express frustration with Harris’ unwillingness to take the three on that possession. So, logic would dictate that that was perhaps a point of discussion in the team’s most recent film session.
Regardless, Harris has to stop hesitating and take those threes off the catch. That doesn’t necessitate abandoning the midrange game, where he’s most comfortable. But if his defender isn’t fighting over off-ball screens with urgency — thus proving he doesn’t respect his outside game — Harris has to pull the trigger. It just doesn’t make sense to pass up open threes in the era of analytics.
It was quite an encouraging first frame on the defensive side of the ball for Joel Embiid. He was extremely engaged, contesting Boston’s bigs around the rim when the Celtics got the ball close. He was also ripping down rebounds with regularity. His defensive movement away from the ball was excellent, as well. There was no tardiness to his stepping up and tagging ball-handlers coming off screens before recovering to bigs. He rotated down the lane to tag bigs as they entered the paint, too. That’s the type of effort Philly is going to need against respectable teams if they’re going to field a defense that is even remotely average. Their perimeter defense might be too lacking in depth to be salvageable unless Simmons decides to come back and play hard.
Given Boston’s size advantage with the starting unit, I liked Rivers’ decision to roll with Shake Milton off the bench first. Milton relieved Tyrese Maxey. Beyond Maxey’s flat-out struggling, it was an upgrade in the size department for the Sixers. Besides being a stronger, bigger body on defense, Milton sparked a seemingly-dead offense with 12 points in the first quarter. The Sixers appeared to be well on their way to a blowout loss. But, Milton’s offense revived them as the first quarter came to a close.
If this offense is going to overcome the defensive shortcomings, Harris needs to snap out of this rut he’s in in a significant way very soon. He looks very similar to the Harris of ’19-’20 — or, as you might know better, the miserable Horford season. Right now, nothing is falling. His triples are well off the mark. His midrange game is more miss than hit. Even when he gets downhill, Harris is over-dribbling into indecision and he’s getting stripped on drives. To compound the issue, he doesn’t know where he’s supposed to be on the court. He’s out of position, and he’s doing inexplicable things like this:
Joel Embiid has good post position. There's no reason Tobias should be simultaneously posting up and making the entry pass way harder. pic.twitter.com/giLdt1ckQf— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) December 2, 2021
To be fair, Harris wasn’t the only one to struggle on offense in the first half. He, Embiid, and Maxey combined for 3-for-22 shooting before intermission. That won’t fly.
Georges Niang is sneakily a passable post player. There were a few possessions in which he got to the rim out of post-ups against Boston’s more physical defenders. He’s slow, as we’ve all deserved. But, he can muscle up with most players his size and he has that ability to time his shots as the defender comes down so as to sneak the ball over outstretched fingers.
These ugly offensive games in the regular season are where you really miss Ben Simmons. Like him or not, he gets you out in transition and creates open looks for his shooters. You might not think about it when the offense is humming. But when shots aren’t falling and your defense needs to do most of the talking, sometimes you just need open looks for your shooters. Danny Green and Seth Curry had to work far too hard to get shots off. That doesn’t happen with Simmons on the court.
We know the problem is the version of Ben Simmons that shows up in the postseason. But his imprint would’ve been very obvious in the loss to Minnesota and in the first half on Wednesday.
It was not a masterclass scoring night for Danny Green (in fairness, it rarely ever is). But he was about as effective as you could ask him to be given the age and size disparity between he and Jayson Tatum. Green took the Tatum assignment virtually whenever they were on the floor together.
He wasn’t completely denying him the ball or shutting him down the way Simmons would. But, he disrupted Tatum’s dribble around screens on a number of Boston possessions. Even when he couldn’t poke the ball away, Green fought over the screens and continued pursuing Tatum. The extra pressure caused Tatum to lose his dribble a few times, wasting shot clock as he recovered the ball. If not that, Green remained disciplined on his contests, aiding in Tatum’s clanking a number of his jumpers.
While the scoring improved marginally for Harris in the third quarter, he deserves credit for finding other means of being effective. He was screening for teammates to aid the progressions of different actions on the perimeter. If not that, he was getting downhill and drawing multiple Celtics before kicking to open teammates. If he wasn’t directly dishing the assist, his first pass led to ball swings that fed open shooters for their scores. Harris is obviously paid handsomely to be a number-2 option. He isn’t that. But on his off nights, he doesn’t check out. He stays involved in other ways, and that’s all you can ask for when shots aren’t falling.
I really liked Rivers’ decision to go with Maxey in the all-bench unit to open the fourth quarter instead of giving Korkmaz his usual minutes in that spot. Obviously Korkmaz has struggled mightily and been virtually unplayable for a few weeks straight. But, allowing Maxey to just run with the second unit — and against the opposition’s second unit — gives your offense a chance to get out and run. With a guard like Maxey, that should be a 5-Hour Energy right to the offense’s veins.
Danny Green’s health is most important for the team’s chances of accomplishing anything in the postseason. So with that, I can understand the strict minute limit as he nurses the hamstring that’s plagued him throughout the early part of this season. But sticking with Thybulle is just a total buzz kill to your fourth quarter offense. The Celtics were able to front Embiid and deny the entry pass as he wrestled for positioning in the post. Thybulle’s defense is a boost, but his offense is a major disadvantage because you’re effectively playing 4-on-5 on that end of the floor. I can’t blame Rivers for having to abide by a minute restriction.
But, I do blame Rivers for not opting for Shake Milton in that spot. Milton isn’t the defender that Thybulle is, but he’s a major upgrade to the offense. Perhaps he doesn’t directly impact the score on his own. But, the Celtics will certainly respect him more than they do Thybulle. That respect, alone, will make it easier for Embiid to establish his positioning and retrieve the ball.
Beyond that, Rivers deserves some criticism for regurgitating the same play on offense throughout the fourth quarter. There was no creativity to what the Sixers did. There was no re-shuffling the deck to get Embiid a look from a different angle. It was the same unproductive scheme the entire time Thybulle was in the game in the fourth quarter.
While we’re on the topic of Rivers, you might make the case that he left Drummond in the game a bit too long in the fourth quarter. Drummond had a strong game. But, there were a couple shots at the rim he couldn’t get to in time to alter. Perhaps Embiid wouldn’t have made the plays, either. However, the offensive lift is what you’re aiming for. Perhaps Rivers wanted to give Embiid more rest. That would be valid if there wasn’t a multi-minute delay late in the third quarter to fix an untied net on the hoop. With the extended rest, there was an opportunity to stretch Embiid’s minutes in the fourth quarter for the sake of winning a ball game against a rival.
Now, for the play that broke the internet:
Ultimately, Rivers drew up a perfectly fine play here. He bets on Boston switching everything, has his shooters stretching the floor out so that the second-side corner has no helpers lurking for Embiid, and has both his forwards in positions to make passes without insurmountable length in their ways. Most important of all, his best player is isolated against a significant size mismatch. But, the reality is Niang made a poor pass to Harris, who caught the ball facing away from the basket and had Horford backing him up as he caught the ball. Harris still had plenty of time to make a pass to Embiid, but he lost his head. Good play design, poor execution. And that’s all.
Of course, the game wouldn’t have come to that had Embiid, Maxey, and Harris not combined to shoot 10-for-41 from the field.
The Sixers (11-11) will visit the Atlanta Hawks (12-10) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM EST. You can catch the action on ESPN.