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Sixers put up worst effort of season in loss to Celtics: What I Saw

Sixers-Celtics

The Sixers (34-22) hosted the Boston Celtics (33-25) on Tuesday night. Philadelphia intended to extend its winning streak to 3 games. Boston hoped to push its own winning streak to 9 games. The Celtics hit 25 threes to bury the Sixers, 135-87.

Before we get to what I saw, some house-keeping.

Contextual Notes

The Boston Celtics were without the services of Robert Williams III, who was nursing a tight right calf. 

Ime Udoka started Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, and Al Horford.

The Sixers were without the services of James Harden, who will not debut until after the All-Star break as he recovers from a left hamstring injury.

Myles Powell (Two-Way) and Jaden Springer were on G-League assignments with the Delaware Blue Coats and were not available. Springer was also hindered by a sore left knee. 

Doc Rivers started Tyrese Maxey, Danny Green, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.

First Quarter

Jaylen Brown only needed two plays against Danny Green to get going in the first frame. You merely need eyes to know that Green lacks both the agility and foot speed to keep up with someone like Brown. There’s nothing that he or Doc Rivers can do to counter that. It’s merely a part of age. What it does underscore is Philly’s need to look at their competition in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. In my eyes, a bigger concern than finding a backup big on the buyout market should be figuring out what your defense can do against teams with a pair of star-level wing.

You have one real defensive ace on the wings with Matisse Thybulle. But your next best wing defender, at least by reputation, is Danny Green. And that was more true last season, anyway. As the Sixers approach the buyout market — nearly 60 games into their season — they still don’t have more than 1, maybe 1.5, players that are net-positive wing defenders and can credibly take up playoff minutes. That should be a much more pressing need than finding another backup big when you have a veteran in Paul Millsap, and two young energizer-bunnies in Paul Reed and Charles Bassey.

Daniel Theis can sign wherever he wants. He can get traded anywhere in the league. No matter where he goes, he cannot escape the hell in which Joel Embiid puts him. Theis got elbowed in the chin on an Embiid swing-pass, and he committed an obvious foul, accompanied by a frustrated hand clap because he knew he bit a fake, in a span of just a few possessions. Even when they’re both retired, Embiid might as well roll up to a rec league game where Theis is playing just for the hell of it. Old time’s sake.

Embiid didn’t get a shot to fall in his first stint of the game. But, unlike in many previous affairs with the Celtics, he was not overmatched by the likes of Al Horford or any other Boston big. When Embiid wasn’t catching a frustrated Horford with fouls, he was attacking the middle of the lane with power, drawing more than two defenders to try and clot the blood. The MVP favorite got to the line 8 times in the first frame, converting 7 of those attempts. He didn’t forget to involve his teammates, either. Embiid was cognizant of all the attention Boston threw his way, dishing 4 assists in the first quarter.

Second Quarter

Rivers let Embiid soak on the bench for more than 4 minutes in the second quarter, in addition to the 2 minutes of recharge time he got to end the first quarter. Meanwhile, the Celtics pushed their lead to 19 points with him on the bench. Feels like that’s an opportunity to deviate from normal rotation patterns for the sake of stopping the bleeding. 

A quick scan of the first half box score might deem this to be an anomalistic night from both Philadelphia and Boston. After all, the Sixers converted 12 of their 35 field goal attempts before halftime. Meanwhile, Boston hit 22 of its 39 attempts, and made 8 more triples than the Sixers did through 24 minutes. 

Some nights you can conclude that one team was unsustainably hot while the other was equally cold. There is probably some truth to the deviations in performances as being random. What was not at all random was Philadelphia’s effort level. The Celtics were lining up wide-open threes from all over the floor. They were pulling up off the dribble in transition. Boston was catching off of ball swings. They even settled for some step-backs. It didn’t matter, the Celtics were releasing their shots with far too much separation.

It wasn’t limited to three-point shooting, either. The Sixers were extremely late on their interior and back-side rotations, as well. Jayson Tatum and other Celtics got the rim completely unabated for layups. They recognized the Sixers’ misplays and peeled off for back-cuts to the rim, with no one there to clean up the mess for his teammate. 

It wasn’t until late in the second quarter, with the Celtics leading by more than 20 points, did the Sixers finally start to contest with gusto. But to the Celtics’ credit, they made some insane shots. Tatum buried a step-back midrange jumper in Embiid’s eye. Brown — who hit 5 triples in the first half — ripped the net on a skyscraper over Thybulle’s outstretched arms. 

You can live with those types of makes. But those made the situation even more demoralizing for Philly because they felt like they had put together strings of stops, only to have a 20-point deficit balloon back up to 23. Of course, those shots wouldn’t be nearly as back-breaking had the Sixers not dug themselves a 20-point hole largely due to effort, to begin with. 

Marcus Smart rolled his ankle in the second quarter and departed with a right ankle sprain. He did not return to the game.

Third Quarter

Narrator: “It got much, much worse.”

Both teams picked back up right where they left off in the third quarter. A blown pick-and-pop coverage left Horford open long enough for a three, pushing Boston’s lead above the 30-point level. Not only did the open threes continue to flow, but the shots at the rim were still there, too. Even Embiid was falling for fakes at the rim, conceding the space Tatum needed to finish at the hoop.

The Sixers did eventually tighten up their intensity on defense. But, Boston made a handful of incredibly difficult shots. Brown’s gasoline from deep eventually ran out. But, Tatum was right there to grab the baton and keep it going with a couple of ridiculous step-back threes off of isolations.

Tobias Harris was not even remotely the biggest reason the Sixers were embarrassed on their home floor. But my goodness, did he look like every bit of a role player in his minutes in this game. In James Harden’s introductory press conference earlier on Tuesday, he characterized Harris as somebody who could put up 20 points on any given night. That is largely an accurate characterization. But, Harris could not have looked more pedestrian if he tried. Worst of all, there wasn’t even any fight in his game. He was weak with the ball, unaggressive as a scorer, and looked completely overwhelmed by each and every Celtic possessing even slight athleticism.

Fourth Quarter

But hey, there were some Paul Millsap minutes with the game out of reach. The veteran forward made sure to get his season averages up, too. He scored 9 points in 9 minutes of play, finishing as the Sixers’ fourth-highest scorer of the night.

Between the butterfingers on both teams’ hands, the botched layups and passes, and aimless dribbling, the fourth quarter certainly felt like a 7th graders’ game. 

It didn’t matter at all because the game was already well over and the lineup is never going to see real minutes together anyway, but the Sixers were awfully confused by secondary actions away from the pick-and-roll. The Celtics ran pick-and-rolls involving any one of their ball-handlers with pindown screens coming from the weak-side wing while the screener dashed to the cup. The Sixers smelled nothing brewing. Those misreads surrendered a pair of spot-up threes to Sam Hauser.

The Sixers (34-23) will visit the Milwaukee Bucks (35-23) on Thursday. Tip-off is set for 8:30 PM EST. It will be their final contest before the All-Star break. You can catch the action on TNT.