Philadelphia couldn’t handle another devastating loss this week. Carson Wentz and the Eagles on Sunday, and now Joel Embiid:

Embiid will have surgery tomorrow, and will be re-evaluated in 1-2 weeks. 

Oh, by the way, the Sixers were due to host the Celtics (25-10) in a few hours. Boston was coming in on the second night of a back-to-back and losers of two straight affairs. As is always the case with the Celtics, a victory would not be easy to come by–especially with the C’s sorely looking to get back to their winning ways.

Coming Out Strong

Both teams came out red-hot on Thursday, with the Celtics stepping into open triples out of ball-screens and Philadelphia’s miscommunications on defensive assignments, while the Sixers simply remained aggressive and active on their end of the floor. The game was tied at 19 with four minutes and fifty-seven seconds gone in the first quarter. The Celtics finished the quarter strong, while the Sixers fell back to earth, and Boston lead by nine after the first twelve minutes.

Too Easy

Daniel Theis knocked down a long ball to give the Celtics a fifteen-point lead–their largest of the game–with five minutes remaining in the first half. Boston was getting virtually anything they wanted at the basket, getting to the line, and capitalizing on open looks. The Sixers looked deflated, like a team that had an excuse to lose with Embiid absent. 

Then, “Ennis The Menace” checked in. James Ennis III, in addition to playing a pivotal role in a sequence of defensive stops, buried a pair of triples in the late stages of the second period to bring the Sixers within three points of evening the game. Ennis III fueled a 10-0 run that injected life into a lethargic Sixers team. Boston closed the half with a pair of quick buckets, but the Sixers had narrowed the gap and had something to build upon when the second half began. 

The Takeover

The Sixers controlled the entire second half. They began the third quarter on a 19-4 run to lead the Celtics by 6. The primary catalyst in the run was their defensive adjustments made at halftime–they re-dedicated themselves to forcing the Celtics off of the three-point line.

At roughly only nine three-pointers allowed per game, the Sixers are one of the league’s best teams at defending the deep ball. However, Boston connected on eight of its twenty attempts in the first half. The Celtics went the first six minutes and forty seconds of the third quarter without making a three-pointer (they then, of course, made five consecutive triples to finish the quarter). The Sixers got back to their defensive identity in the third quarter, and that brought them back to life.

Tobias Harris spoke on remaining resilient and taking over on both sides of the ball: “We knew coming in they played last night, so we knew eventually a lot of the shots they were taking in the first half and making it was going to come to a point where they were going to go through a little stretch where they miss a few of those and that’s where we really said ‘we have to be able to get out in transition and run and be efficient when we were in transition’. I thought that was a way that we got into it.”

Close Out

When we analyze this team, the primary weakness we come up with is the team’s lack of a closer when the game reaches crunch time territory. I, personally, do not subscribe to the philosophy that a closer has to be a perimeter player–if a center has the killer instinct, so be it. Find a way to win when the game hangs in the balance, period. It does not matter who makes the baskets, the win always tastes the best. 

But, what if I told you that closing out a game doesn’t have to be about making shots? What if I said it’s about executing the way your team was built to play? 

Although the Sixers had an excellent offensive quarter, they closed this contest out with their defense. The Celtics, who, in all fairness, were likely feeling the fatigue of the tail-end of a back-to-back, missed thirteen of their twenty-one field goal attempts in the final frame, including six of seven from beyond the arc. The one made three-pointer was courtesy of Marcus Smart, and it came with nine minutes and thirty seconds left in the quarter. In other words, the Sixers held Boston scoreless from long distance over the final nine-and-a-half minutes of the game–a game in which they had connected on thirteen triples already.

Most impressive of all–the Sixers committed only one shooting foul in the quarter, and it was an and-1. The Celtics took one free throw in the entire fourth quarter. For a team that has shown a trend of lacking discipline on defense resulting in a high number of fouls committed, the Sixers holding themselves to a single shooting foul in the fourth quarter is remarkable.

The Josh Richardson Show

On the offensive side of the ball, the fourth quarter was largely about Josh Richardson. Brett Brown, who has made public his intent to be more hands-on with the offensive schemes late in games in recent weeks, ran his shooting guard through countless pick-and-rolls in the final frame. Richardson was able to probe the foul-line-extended areas and evaluate his options with the ball in his hands. Brown positioned the play-calls to get Richardson in the fifteen-foot areas before making his decisions. It paid dividends, as Richardson scored fourteen of his game-high twenty-nine points in the fourth quarter. 

Brett Brown praised Richardson’s mentality following the win: “I thought that his attitude and his attack mentality right out of the gate was impressive and he just was extremely aggressive both sides of the ball immediately. We talked about, and this was a close-out game–you can go up 3-0 on Boston and you never know if it can be cashed in at some point if at all, but, in our eyes, in January, this was kind of a unique game. I think Josh Richardson, in the absence of Joel Embiid, and we have a chance here at home where we’re 18-2, we wanted to keep that momentum going and I think Josh drove that. He was our bell-ringer tonight, and I thought it started with just his mindset, his mentality, as much as whatever statistics came out of that attitude.”

Going forward, with and without Embiid, the Sixers may have a hint as to who they can run their offense through in crunch time. While Richardson has been up and down throughout the season, the trends have indicated that, when he is comfortable within the offense, Richardson can put up big numbers. Tonight, Josh built a strong case for future closing duties. 

The Sixers (25-14) clinched the season series against the Celtics (25-11) for the first time since 2013-14, and they did it without their best player. There’s still a very long way to go in this season and they must remain locked in over the next few weeks with Embiid absent. It’s an ‘onto the next one’ mentality, but tonight’s win against the Celtics was one of their two best wins of the season, and certainly something to build upon as they journey forward without ‘The Process’ for the foreseeable future.