Embiid Leads Total Team Effort to Put Sixers on Cusp of Conference Finals

The Sixers (2-2) visited the Boston Celtics (2-2) in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series on Tuesday. Philadelphia wanted to put itself in position for a close-out Game 6 at home on Thursday with a win. Boston wanted to defend its home court and put the Sixers on the brink of elimination. A balanced, full-team effort carried the Sixers to a shocking blowout victory in Boston, 115-103. 

Before we get to what I saw, some notes.

Contextual Notes

  • All Sixers were available for Game 5.
  • Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Joel Embiid.
  • The Celtics were without the services of Danilo Gallinari, who is out for the season as he recovers from a torn ACL in his left knee.
  • Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Al Horford.

Likes

Fresh off giving the world an iconic visual as he yelled into Embiid’s ear on a pep talk late in Game 4, Tucker was there re-enforcing why he has the cachet to talk to a superstar the way he did. He picked up Brown, who has 12 years of youth on him, in the backcourt, forcing the Celtics wing to eat up time just to get up the court. When Tucker guarded in the frontcourt, he junked some things up for the Celtics with active hands. He didn’t always get the stop, such is inevitable when you’re tasked with guarding up in size as often as he is. But, he made whichever green jersey he was in front of re-think what he wanted to do.

Whether it was Tatum, Brown, or someone else, Tucker’s handiness forced them to jab-step or pump-fake to try to create room. Not only does that eat up time, but it also means you’re making them uncomfortable. Tucker practically wore the Celtics’ jerseys with how connected he was to them on defense, and it became extremely difficult for Boston’s primary offensive options to get going early in this one.

Philadelphia’s offense hummed in the first half, but the differentiator was the Sixers’ execution on defense. Their switches were perfect, synchronized and timed so that Boston couldn’t thread passes between defenders as they shifted assignments. The Sixers also did a fantastic job of staying with shooters. They didn’t concern themselves with finding their assignments. It was as simple as getting a body on the open man. Boston missed some great looks, but the Sixers also vacuumed up space that would’ve been granted earlier in this series.

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Philadelphia’s chances of winning this series have largely been predicated on how much scoring Maxey and Harris could provide. Aside from Maxey’s Game 1 and Harris’ Games 1 and 2, the only reason the Celtics haven’t already been sent packing is that no one on Philadelphia’s side has stepped up to help Harden and Embiid shoulder the load on offense. Both did their parts in Game 5.

First is Harris, who was aggressive at the rim and soft with his midrange touch. He got to his preferred spots on the borders of the paint, backing down smaller defenders like Malcolm Brogdon for a turnaround fader out of the post and a pull-up after attacking a close-out. The best way to tell that Harris and the Sixers, as a whole, were locked in was the collection of little things beyond the norm that each and every role player did. For Harris, that was the work on the glass. The advanced metrics paint Harris as a well-above-average rebounder for a forward. The eye test tells a much different story. But, he corralled 11 rebounds in this game. Two of them came on the offensive glass, Harris keeping possessions alive and finishing the job for his teammates.

Then, there was Maxey, who put forth the most important playoff performance of his career thus far. He set himself up for catch-and-shoot threes beautifully, spacing wide in the halfcourt and in transition so that Boston would have too much ground to cover to offer a contest after collapsing on the ball inside. Maxey’s size may be a limitation in measuring his ceiling and true star potential, but his heart and guts will always make you question whether the size really matters. There he was, knocking down a massive three off the catch in the fourth quarter to silence a Boston run.

But, his impact extended far beyond that. He punished every single mistake Boston made. If they went under a screen on him, he buried a three to punish the disrespect. When they stepped too far and opened every so slightly too much to give Maxey his dominant side, the young guard burst right to get downhill. If they miscommunicated on a pick-and-roll, he read the mistake to perfection and took the ball to the cup. 

You could see the things the Sixers talked about in the film session following the Game 3 loss correcting themselves in real time. Rivers mentioned that either Embiid or Montrezl Harrell cut off Maxey’s explanation for not attacking on a possession in Game 3, telling him that there was nothing to wait for and to attack if he had the lane. And then on Philadelphia’s final score of the third quarter, he cut around Embiid while the big fella was under duress. Embiid set him up with the pass, the green paint totally unoccupied. Maxey didn’t think for a second, bursting to the hoop for a score to put the Sixers up by 19 points. 30 points on 21 shots, six triples, and only one turnover. All you can ask for out of your budding star in a pivotal Game 5 in hostile territory.

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If the Sixers go on to win this series, Rivers coaching circles around Mazzulla will rightfully be a storyline. But, one of the biggest adjustments Rivers made was putting Danuel House Jr. in the rotation for this game. There’s always a bit of fear about House’s level of control with the ball in his hands and focus on defense. But, he was magnificent on both ends. He upped Philadelphia’s pace in transition, pushing the ball up the court or running with the ball-handler and muscling his way to scores against Boston’s back-pedaling defense. His defense was just as critical.

So important to shutting down Boston’s offensive attack in any game is keeping the likes of Smart, White, Horford, and Brogdon in check. If you get disconnected in your defensive rotations and allow dribble penetration, those guys will kill you just by spotting up and waiting for the ball to come their ways. That quartet of Celtics combined to shoot 7-for-29 from the field. Some of it was just poor team-wide shooting luck at the worst possible time. But, some of it was that the Sixers had the depth to continue switching and denying paths to the paint. House fit in perfectly, beating downhill attempts from spot to spot and forcing the Celtics to move the ball to the next teammate instead of attacking to create advantages on the other side of the floor. 

Fittingly, the ‘Likes’ must wrap up with Embiid and Harden. Embiid scored 33, but I didn’t think it was his most effective display of scoring. He was aggressive against contact, working his way to the free throw line for his usual double-digit volume of free shots. It was the two-man game that powered Embiid’s 33-point night, Harden setting him up perfectly for midrange jumpers from his sweet spots. But, the big story of the night was Embiid’s defense.

He altered countless Boston shots at the rim. I don’t know that Embiid will ever win Defensive Player of the Year. Hell, I don’t know that he’ll ever care about individual awards again now that he has his elusive MVP trophy. But, the plays he makes when you think the opposition is about to get an easy bucket are absolutely absurd. They reminder you that, if Embiid really put his mind to it over the course of a whole season, he might be a run-away Defensive Player of the Year winner.

All game long, he erased Boston shots. Not just the aforementioned intimidation of him being around the rim. These were full blocks. He took scores away from the Celtics all night long, most notably sprinting back into the play to deny Brown a would-be layup in transition. It was everything the 50-and-older crowd all over the Delaware Valley could dream of. Even those who would go to any length to discredit Embiid’s greatness because he’s no Wilt Chamberlain had to admire and appreciate what the newly-minted MVP did. These weren’t just blocks. Embiid put his body on the line, crashing into whatever was in front of him with a banged up knee for the sake of making a play. Anything to help his team pull off the victory.

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Even though his defense took center stage, it was still a strong offensive performance from Embiid. Sure, he did a lot of the work himself. But, Harden deserves a big token of credit for the midrange barrage Embiid put forth. It wasn’t anything like the heroic performances in Games 1 and 4 for the bearded guy. But, more importantly, it wasn’t anything like his Games 2 and 3, either. Harden played with control and poise, dictating the pace with the ball in his hands.

He can single-handedly lose you a game with his decision-making, grifting for fouls and taking risks that lead to live-ball turnovers with the backdrop of terrible floor balance. Tuesday saw none of that. Harden directed Embiid through the pick-and-roll like an orchestra conductor, calling for and accepting the screen at the right times, stringing out Boston’s defense to create more space for the big fella, and timing his passes perfectly.

He only took eight shots. He only scored 17 points. But, that was all Philadelphia needed from him. More importantly, the Sixers needed him to treasure the basketball, and he did that. 10 assists against two turnovers, good for a ratio of 5:1. A good ratio for a guard is 2.5:1. Harden doubled that. 

Dislikes

I didn’t love Embiid taking seven triples, but he made three of them. He’s such a good midrange shooter that taking threes feels like he’s bailing out the defense. And in this series, against this opponent, every possession must be cherished.

This game continued the trend of Philadelphia struggling to close out halves. The Sixers built a 16-point lead in the first half. Boston cut it to nine by halftime. Part of that run was Embiid taking threes. Misses create transition opportunities, and we know the Sixers are not a good transition defense.

The Sixers also had the game put to bed late in the fourth quarter, leading by more than 20 points with under four minutes to play. The Celtics had emptied their bench. That was when the Sixers took their foot off the gas, and the Celtics made them sweat. The lead shrunk as low as 12 points. But, Boston’s run was just a little too late.

The Sixers need to close out quarters better, in this round and beyond. That is, of course, if there is a beyond.

The Sixers (3-2) will host the Boston Celtics (2-3) in Game 6 of this series on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on ESPN.

Austin Krell
Austin Krell

I provide daily coverage of the Philadelphia 76ers for The Painted Lines / Edge of Philly Sports. As a reporter, I work every day to foster relationships with those around the NBA, shape my analysis of what I see in games, and keep tabs on what’s to come around the league. I also host a Sixers-centric podcast called The Feed To Embiid. Follow me on Twitter, @NBAKrell.

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