The Philadelphia 76ers (34-16) were in Boston visiting the Celtics (25-25) on Tuesday. It was the first game of yet another multi-game road trip for Philly. The Sixers were looking to rebound from a walloping at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies in Philly on Sunday. The Celtics were looking to push their current winning streak to three games. Another dominant night for Joel Embiid against the Celtics’ feeble bigs was all the Sixers needed to emerge triumphant, 106-96.
Before we get to what I saw, some notes.
Doc Rivers has no timetable for George Hill to make his debut for the Sixers. Before the game, Rivers said that Hill was able to shoot on Tuesday. The issue, Rivers said, is that the hand being nursed is still very sensitive to contact. As a ball-handler, that contact is unavoidable. While it can take an indefinite period of time for that pain to be controllable, Rivers anticipates Hill’s return will follow soon after he’s able to participate in practice without pain.
Rivers started Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid.
The Celtics were without Evan Fournier (health and safety protocol) and Tristan Thompson (post h/s protocol reconditioning). Brad Stevens started Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams.
The Sixers were able to accumulate two fouls on Robert Williams III early in this game and TD Garden essentially turned into a candy shop for Joel Embiid. The big man was able to get absolutely anything he wanted at any time he wanted it. The Celtics began to help on the catch whenever Embiid got the ball, and that was really the only thing they could do to even just slow him down. Without Tristan Thompson, the Celtics had nothing resembling a solution for Embiid.
One of the subtle strategic progressions stemming from Embiid’s improved handling of double-teams is his willingness to attack the middle of the lane instead of the baseline. Embiid is now much more inviting of doubles and, as a result, actually pursues them as leverage to generate open opportunities for teammates. When he attacks the middle of the lane instead of the baseline, as he did often against the Celtics, he’s essentially pushing himself into the teeth of the defense until he hears a whistle or sees a shooter spotting up for an open look.
My only gripe with Embiid’s first half was that he settled for three-point shots four times. The Celtics have five centers on their roster. Not one is capable of stopping Embiid. Hell, you could put two or three of them on Embiid, and I don’t know that Embiid would be completely shut down. There’s no way, in a normal scenario, that Embiid should be taking four triples against this team. I include the ‘in a normal scenario’ clause to be fair, as Embiid may have attempted those trifectas as a result of conditioning. He’s played two of the team’s last fourteen games. He very well could’ve been too tired to continue wrestling below the rim. That is certainly understandable.
“I thought tonight, as good as our team defense, I thought we had a great individual defensive performances by a lot of guys.”
The Sixers’ defensive rotations were the primary source of separation in the first half. On top of being in sync with positioning when Boston swung the ball, the Sixers were active in passing lanes. They were able to force a number of live-ball turnovers in the first half. After a cold start from beyond the arc, the Sixers found their range with extra passes on their own end of the floor. With Boston reeling to get back in transition, the Sixers encountered little trouble in pushing their lead to double digits before halftime.
Rivers was very happy with both his team and individual defenses in the victory. “I just thought we really locked in,” Rivers said after the game. “They have three dynamic scorers, they really do. I thought that, overall, we just locked in and guarded each one individually. I thought tonight, as good as our team defense, I thought we had a great individual defensive performances by a lot of guys.”
Ben Simmons put his imprint on this game in the third quarter. Particularly refreshing was that Simmons demonstrated the ability to change speeds with the ball in his hands. That athleticism was consistently present during his rookie year and has faded to intermittency since then. In this game, Simmons displayed some of that change of pace to create scores at the rim when he had one-on-one matchups.
All in all, Simmons showed some promising signs of breakthrough in this game, even if his final box score wasn’t all that overwhelming. He still missed a handful of shots under the rim (Marcus Smart was guarding him on a number of those), and was stripped in the driving lanes a few times. However, he was still much more aggressive as a driver in space in this game. He converted a handful of difficult layups by pushing the rim in isolation and even finished a floater in transition with Robert Williams III right on him. After starting the game 0-for-4 from the free throw line, Simmons connected on each of his final four attempts. You hope the memory of those last four carries into a stretch of consistency to end the season.
“I think the pace that we play at allows me to get and feel a good rhythm.”
Danny Green has been one of the underrated gems of this season for the Sixers. The poetic justice of his tenure has been that Al Horford’s diabolical contract was the only forfeit the Sixers needed to acquire Green. While they overpaid Horford, Green has certainly outperformed his role to a degree that Horford never could’ve with the contract he signed.
Green continues to be effective in disrupting offenses by getting a hand on the ball to force turnovers, and he’s been quite adept at smothering smaller matchups and rejecting their field goal attempts at the rim. In this game, Green connected on a number of back-breaking threes throughout the game to extend Philadelphia’s lead. The impressive part has been Green’s conversion rate (nearly 41 percent) on the volume he’s taking. Twelve seasons into his career, he’s attempting more than 6 triples per game–a career-high. In this game, Green was 5-of-6 from deep.
After the victory, Green touched on what it’s like for him be in such a shooting rhythm. “I wouldn’t say the rim gets bigger [I asked Green if that adage was true], but you definitely feel more of a rhythm, feel more in rhythm,” Green said.
“I think the pace that we play at allows me to get and feel a good rhythm. The fact that Jo draws double-teams and gets it out and we move it pretty well. But, the more you make shots, the more you feel better. The more, I guess, you have to, say, do less techniques because you’re in a good flow. The feeling, I guess, naturally gets bigger. It feels like everything you throw up goes in. But, it’s more-so you have a good feel for it and you kind of keep the same repetition. Most times you’re struggling, you have to make sure your mechanics are right. But when you’re hot, you hit one or two and then it’s like, let me just get it, get it up, and get to more of a heat check thing.”
Tough Night For Tobi
Tonight was one of the only nights this season where Tobias Harris seemed physically and athletically overmatched. Defensively, he was perfectly adequate. Offensively, however, he just couldn’t get anything going. At times, it appeared as though Boston’s agility and physicality were simply too much for Harris’ game.
When he attacked, his matchup was able to beat him to the first step and deny it. At the rim, Boston was able to use its size and vertical athleticism to play above him. In the post and on the perimeter, Boston’s wings had little issue with standing strong against his size He’s typically had no problem cutting through defenses like a hot knife through butter. In this game, the Celtics were resistant to his attempts at backing him down. This hasn’t been a common issue over the course of the season for Harris, so it may just be an unfavorable matchup for him.
“Especially for me because I’ve been here for so long and so that’s a rivalry that’s very important for me and also for the city of Philadelphia.”
The Sixers swept their season series with Boston, 3-0. It was their first time doing so since the 2000-01 season. That was also the last time the Sixers made the trip to the Finals. But, I don’t think I needed to tell you that.
Embiid didn’t hide the fact that games against the Celtics have special meaning. “It’s not just about what happened in the playoffs. Every single year you want to win this matchup,” Embiid said after the victory.
“You want to play well against them. You want to win all these games. So, this season hasn’t been different. Obviously, you say we won those three games. So, that’s the mindset we got to have against every team. But against Boston, that’s our rival. They’ve got a great team. They got a lot of great talent, great coaching. So, those are the games you really want to win. Especially for me because I’ve been here for so long and so that’s a rivalry that’s very important for me and also for the city of Philadelphia.”
The Sixers (35-16) will head to New Orleans to face the Pelicans (22-28) on Friday. Tip-off is set for 8 PM EST. You can catch the action on NBC Sports Philadelphia.