The Sixers (51-27) hosted the Boston Celtics (54-24) on Tuesday. Philadelphia wanted to get back on track after losing to the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday. Boston wanted to extend its winning streak to three games. Joel Embiid went for 52 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists to stamps his MVP case on national television as the Sixers outlasted the Celtics 103-101.
Before we get to the action, some context is due.
- The Celtics were without the services of Jaylen Brown, who has pain in his low back.
- Robert Williams III missed the game to manage a left knee injury. Payton Pritchard was out with pain in his left heel.
- Danilo Gallinari is recovering from surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee and was unavailable.
- Joe Mazzulla started Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jayson Tatum, Grant Williams, and Al Horford.
- The Sixers were without the services of Jaden Springer, who is on a G-League assignment with the Delaware Blue Coats.
- Louis King and Mac McClung are on Two-Way G-League assignments with the Blue Coats and were unavailable.
- Doc Rivers started James Harden, Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, PJ Tucker, and Embiid.
You can take the juice out of the game with Brown being a late scratch for the Celtics. But, you cannot take the opportunity to shine on national television from Embiid. With Williams III out for the green jerseys, Boston was down to one traditionally-sized big capable of giving Embiid any problems in Horford. But, Embiid took Horford to work the last time these two teams played. It wasn’t a one-on-one feast for Embiid to start, the Celtics starting Horford on Tucker and deploying him as a roaming helper on defense. However, it didn’t matter who the Celtics put in Embiid’s way. That statement held true through the first half, Embiid scoring 24 points in 18 minutes.
It wasn’t a march to the free throw line. But, perhaps that would’ve been less demoralizing for the Celtics because Embiid dominated Boston every other way possible. The two-man game with Harden unleashed him on a vacant runway to the basket a couple of times. But, he did whatever he wanted around the nail.
Embiid’s footwork was absolutely sensational, a telltale sign that he was locked in from the jump. He pulled out a Dream Shake on a turnaround jumper for one of his first touches of the game, a move we haven’t seen him use that often since the first bucket of his career. Embiid pivoted his way around jumpy Celtics, showing superb craft as he turned extremely capable Boston defenders into traffic cones in the paint.
If the first move wasn’t there, no worries. Embiid reversed his pivot, finding an opening by flipping back and attacking the other way. If Boston threw two at the ball, Embiid reversed his pivot and stepped through. To the delights of 50-and-olders all over the Delaware Valley, Embiid turned back the clock with a hook over the shoulder out of the post, too.
The interior dominance didn’t last all night, Embiid inevitably losing steam for the physicality. But, the big fella was nowhere close to done. The rest of the night featured a barrage of midrange jumpers, Embiid willing his team to the finish line. It did not matter who was in his way, the quality of the contest, or the level of difficulty, Embiid got whatever he wanted from the nail, extended. I think Embiid’s jump-shooting ability is a bit underrated because he never takes catch-and-shoots from his sweet spots. He creates for himself off the dribble, whether it be one bounce, multiple, or a more complex move. And it was more of the same in this game.
Even when Harden’s passing got Embiid the ball in the middle of the floor, the big fella was the one deciding when to go to work. In many ways, it was a performance in tribute to Kawhi Leonard’s playoff run. Everything Embiid touched turned to gold, all but five of his 25 shots hitting their targets.
And when it came time to shut the door — on both the game and his MVP campaign for this season — Embiid pulled all the right strings. With Williams the only man in his way and no Celtics close to help, Embiid rapidly turned on the Boston forward’s smothering stance, giving himself a full runway to detonate to the rim for a dunk that put Philadelphia up by six points with less than 90 seconds to play. His last bucket of the night gave Embiid 50 points, completing a masterpiece on national television.
But, Embiid did have to put some trust in teammates, as much as they’d struggled all night, to bring the win home. The Celtics sent double-teams his way in crunch time, forcing the big fella to make absurd shots or plug open teammates and force them to make shots. Embiid didn’t force low-quality shots in an effort to be a hero. Rather, he read the double-teams.
Horford pulled in from the corner to add pressure, Embiid rifled the ball to Tucker for a triple to untie the game. Smart pulled in with Embiid at the elbow, and the big fella made him pay with another pass to Tucker. And then, perhaps the knockout punch. Tatum pulled in from the corner to box-out if the shot went up, White pulled in away from Harden on the wing. No one was in position to x-out for Boston, and Embiid found Tucker wide-open for another triple.
Embiid carried the scoring load the entire night, pumping in more than half of Philadelphia’s points by himself. But, when it came time to win the game, he made great decisions. Kudos to Tucker for stepping up when quite literally the entire rest of the team drew dead. But, it was Embiid who leveraged his own scoring gravity to create and execute on advantages for his teammates.
It was a masterful performance. One that, combined with Nikola Jokic’s absolute stinker against the lowly Houston Rockets at the same time, might stamp his MVP award.
As bad as he was and has been on offense for quite some time, I thought Harris did a very good job of defending Tatum in isolation in the fourth quarter. Vacuumed up space, choppy feet, not keeping his hands still for foul-baiting. He also kept the Celtics star in front, forcing him into difficult shots around the perimeter with the shot clock winding down.
And on the game’s final play, he was right in Tatum’s face, sticking to him through a back-screen on the way to the strong-side corner. Harris forced him to waste time pivoting back to his left for a fadeaway once he caught the inbound pass, nearly erasing any chance the wing scorer had of getting off a good look to tie the game at the end of regulation.
I think the leading concern right now in a second-round matchup with the Celtics is that Maxey drew dead against them all regular season. Back in the starting lineup on a permanent basis and one of the Celtics’ best perimeter defenders unavailable, it seemed like an opportunity for Maxey to find his footing. Nope; he had nothing for White, Smart, or any other Celtic in his way.
To me, the biggest reason for his stalled offense is that any matchup featuring an average-sized guard with in-prime agility leaves him without answers. He can’t create space for stepbacks because their first step in recovery will be on time. Maxey can’t blow by because they can keep him in front. Essentially, what it comes down to is that Maxey has yet to develop any self-creation game that he can go to in the halfcourt. When there isn’t a ton of transition play or mismatched defenders to attack, Maxey draws dead. That self-creation craft will come over time. But, it won’t be here for the playoffs. And Maxey being a question mark against the Celtics is a major problem for the Sixers. He can swing a game or two in a series by himself, but the way he’s fared against the Celtics this season does not inspire confidence.
Philadelphia finally had some shooting luck on its side in the first half, the Celtics cold from deep in the first 24 minutes. But, it wasn’t that the Sixers did a great job of contesting on the perimeter. They bit fakes, flying by shooters. The Sixers were a rotation too short, leaving shooters wide open one swing pass away. Boston could’ve easily lit them up in the first half, as they’ve done all season. So, that the Sixers still haven’t strung together consistent defensive play against them is concerning as the playoffs inch closer and closer. I thought there were moments when the perimeter defense was better in the second half. But, the Sixers made numerous mistakes in crunch time, pulling in as helpers and leaving shooters wide open. Those open shots kept the Celtics alive until the final buzzer.
The victory is great for the Sixers to get under their belts, especially against a team they seem poised to face in the second round. But, aside from Harden’s final box score and Tucker’s late shooting heroics, Embiid basically had no help the entire night. He scored 52 points, his teammates combined to score 51, and the Celtics scored 101. If he has to go to that effort to keep them competitive against an under-manned Celtics team at home, it doesn’t bode well for their chances against Boston in the playoffs.
The defense wasn’t as much a concern for me as the offense was. Boston stayed alive and even took a lead in the fourth quarter because they made shots on sequences in which the Sixers were cold. But, the concern is that Williams III and Brown are significant staples to Boston’s defensive prowess. The Celtics haven’t been a great defensive team this season, but that the Sixers largely couldn’t get anything going against a team down two of its best defenders is damning.
A big reason for that dried up offense was that the Harden-plus-bench lineups drew totally dead in both stints they played. Philadelphia had strong endings to both the first and third quarters, only for those units to get smoked by Boston. Harden went for 20 points and 10 assists, a strong performance when you consider that he didn’t commit a single turnover. But, he leaned a bit too heavily into isolation play for my liking.
The two-man game with Paul Reed was a pillar of that lineup when they had Toronto on the ropes last week. They didn’t try to hammer it in this game, though. When Harden was able to knife his way into the paint, there was nothing doing. Reed didn’t make himself available, and no one really moved around the ball. As such, Harden was relegated to trying to save possessions by tossing up low-quality midrange jumpers against the shot clock. That unit nearly coughed up the game, but Embiid checked back in before it got too out of hand.
As much as I’ve sung Georges Niang’s praises, I cannot understand for the life of me how Danuel House Jr. doesn’t get at least a chunk of his minutes in this matchup. The Sixers desperately needed some size and athleticism on defense when the Celtics got them in foul trouble in the fourth quarter. It was a situation tailor-made for a 3-and-D wing with legitimate athleticism. Factor in that House has been pretty reliable on both sides of the ball lately, it truly made no sense to me.
The Sixers (52-27) will host the Miami Heat (42-37) on Thursday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., Eastern time. You can catch the action on TNT.
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.