January 12, 2018
The Sixers might have flown to London to help expand basketball to a new audience, but they brought all the same trappings of home with them. After racing out to a 22-point lead against the Boston Celtics in the first half, things came crashing back down to earth, and the Sixers head back to Philly with a 114-103 loss in their back pocket.
On balance, that final scoreline is a decent representation of the gap between the East's No. 1 seed and the Sixers right now. But it's how they got there that is worth discussing.
The Sixers have one of the league's best and most impactful big men, and that gives them a chance to win games on a nightly basis. But in the two games the Sixers have played against Boston this season, Embiid has had some real issues getting anything going for himself on the offensive end of the floor.
On some level, this is about the ebbs and flows of an NBA schedule. Nobody is going to come out and dominate every single night, and even the league's best players have rough nights from the field. You can't say Embiid had an outright bad game against the Celtics either, as he made some nifty passes to set up teammates and was a big part of the Sixers getting out to a huge lead even with his shot not falling.
Still, it's important for the Sixers to keep trends in mind when it comes to the Celtics specifically. They'll obviously be playing them four times a year no matter what, but it seems likely they'll meet in the playoffs for years to come. That includes this year, with the Celtics strengthening their grip on the No. 1 seed and the Sixers scratching and clawing for spot No. 8.
Boston's strength in an Embiid matchup is the ability to throw several bodies at him throughout the game, changing the look and not allowing him to win a war of attrition. 25-year-old rookie Daniel Theis got toasted by Embiid on a couple possessions on Thursday evening, but even he made Embiid work for his points. Their options behind Al Horford are not going to make you pay offensively, but that strong defensive spine ups the degree of difficulty for Embiid.
The Celtics will make you look hard for whatever look you think you're going to get. Staying on Theis for a second, follow Embiid on this possession that ends in a missed shot, and look how hard he has to work just to get post position in the first place.
Boston plays a physical game of basketball as a general rule, and this sequence is no different. Every team doesn't get away with this sort of stuff in the regular season, but it's a staple of playoff basketball that the Sixers will have to learn to cope with. And besides, when push comes to shove on the shot itself, Theis mostly backs off and allows Embiid to get the shot off without a lot of static. They walk that line between physicality and fouling as well as anyone in the league.
If there's an area the Sixers lack in, that might be the No. 1 department for me. Turnovers, blown leads and other problems they deal with feel like a symptom of their youth. But the Sixers struggle to find that balance of physicality as a team, and they end up committing way too many silly fouls as a result. It's a correctable issue, but an issue all the same.
Where Boston's defense really hurts Embiid — and frankly, the rest of the league — is their ability to make plays on the margins. Embiid collected an offensive rebound in the third quarter, and it looked like everything opened up for him to get a bucket or at least get fouled. In stepped Aron Baynes, who got his feet just outside the circle and drew a charge in the process.
Embiid is more than capable of dominating the Celtics the way he does most other teams in the league. His mid-range game was off in London and he has missed plenty of makeable threes in the two meetings he suited up for this season. But watching him struggle again Thursday only reinforced the idea that the Sixers need to ease his offensive burden by getting him more looks through pick-and-rolls and off-ball movement. Better teams are going to make him work harder for his buckets, and they can't rely on Embiid baiting defenders on rip-throughs forever.
We've spent a lot of time this season discussing the limitations of Philadelphia's bench. The problems are no less real now than they were in the middle of their brutal December slump, and signing James Young to a two-way contract isn't going to fix that.
With all due respect to TJ McConnell, who busts his ass every night, if he is your most reliable bench player you are in serious trouble. The NBA has become friendlier and friendlier to guards and wing players over time, and Philadelphia is at a major deficit of useful players there. Their top-end talent is unbelievable, but the on/off numbers paint a clear picture of what happens when the Sixers have to turn to their bench for help.
If there's an overarching theme here, it's the supreme lack of versatility of their bench options. The guards are on the small side, which limits their defensive coverage options and makes it tough for them to finish at the rim. Their wings are expected to counted on for three-point shooting and defense, and they're lucky if they get one of them on a given night. Late addition Trevor Booker was brought in under the pretense he would spend some minutes at center, but he has done nothing but play PF and has been allergic to shooting anywhere outside of the paint.
On some level, all of this is by design. Markelle Fultz figured heavily into the team's plans, and their desire to chase max free agents kept them out of the running for younger, bouncier help in the offseason. The same goes right now when the Sixers will likely balk at deadline deals due with an eye toward big fish in free agency.
But so much is riding on Fultz being the player the draft community believed he could be when the Sixers took him No. 1 overall. Given what we have seen from him in limited doses so far, that's not a terribly encouraging thought.
Relative to the general population, I remain what you would call a skeptic of Tatum to the degree you can be one with the rookie season he is having. His shooting baseline has changed his floor outcome at the very least, but I would still question if he can create enough to be a true core player on a title-winning team.
That said, I also can't fault people for looking at what he's doing and seeing a clear fit on this Sixers team. Philadelphia lacks scoring, shooting and perimeter defense in a big way, and Tatum has shown enough to believe at his best he is capable of giving you all three.
The stretch Tatum had in the third quarter is exactly the sort of thing the Sixers have needed all season. He scored 11 points in just under 11 minutes, springing to life with the Celtics on the precipice of completing a major comeback. Tatum has stretches of games where he is largely ineffectual, but that ability to go and create points out of thin air will always provide value to an NBA team.
How much value? That remains to be seen. The Sixers need another player who can create for the team, which is why Tatum wouldn't necessarily be a perfect fit for Philadelphia. He is able to lean on the talents of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, fading into the backdrop without the team suffering too much for it. That wouldn't be possible to the same degree in Philly.
But the Sixers made a very serious bet when they made the move to go up to No. 1 and select Fultz. Management was content to sacrifice one of their potential outs — the Lakers or Kings pick, depending on how things break — to get a guy they believed would solidify their core for a long time.
That additional pick they gave up is not just about the player it turns into, but the currency it represents around the league and to the Sixers specifically. If Embiid's body gave out this season to the degree that Bryan Colangelo had to look for their next franchise big man, they would have been free to go get DeAndre Ayton next June. In the event that their 2017 selection flamed out — whether that was Fultz, Tatum, or anybody else in the class — they had extra cracks at striking gold coming down the pipeline.
One of those chances is gone. The verdict on Philadelphia's trade will not be made for years, and the prime of Fultz's and Tatum's careers matters a hell of a lot more than the start. But whether you're a believer in Fultz or not, the risk of the move the Sixers made last June is abundantly clear.
If you were making a list of Philadelphia's problems against Boston, I don't think Holmes would make the top five. But you can see why the coaching staff has little trust in his defensive ability, because he consistently finds himself out of position to make an impact.
The biggest disconnect for basketball analysis is divorcing shot-blocking from overall team defense. Yes, it's great when guys swat the everloving shit out of a basketball, but it's not always representative of how they impact the game on that end. Holmes is a prime example of this phenomenon, and his inability to put himself in good positions leads to lots of fouling that could otherwise be avoided.
This sort of play happens early and often when Holmes is in the game:
Robert Covington has to evade two screens to keep up with Jaylen Brown, but he does a decent enough job of staying close and shepherding him toward an area of the floor where he has help. But Holmes, who is caught between preventing an entry to Baynes and stifling a shot at the rim, ends up accomplishing neither and barrels into Brown.
Holmes propensity for taking fouls is easy to blame on being overeager in the few minutes allotted for him. But often times they come down to simple brain cramps, reaches on plays where he's not going to impact the play even in a best-case scenario.
Brett Brown has insisted the Sixers are interested in seeing him play more four alongside Embiid. I think that's a worthwhile experiment and perhaps a better use of him than playing him at center is. Regardless of where he's playing, he needs to tighten things up on D if he wants to get more minutes.
Simmons' general ineffectiveness — or lack of involvement — was a big reason the Sixers faded in the game in the second half. And you can call me a meathead if you want, but I was a big fan of seeing this from him with the game winding down in the fourth quarter.
Marcus Morris went after Ben Simmons 😳 pic.twitter.com/T4o8XyT4Zs— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 11, 2018
His general demeanor often gives off an IDGAF vibe on the court, which is compounded when he's away from the ball for long stretches of the game. He is relentlessly even keel, which can be a tough sell on a city that loves guys who bleed and die for their respective teams.
This was a bit of a changeup from Simmons. It obviously had no impact on the final outcome, but he wasn't about to go out like a punk in a game against a division rival. If he could play with that sort of edge all the time, I think he and the Sixers would be better for it. He is too big, too skilled and too smart to be a passenger in any game.
Philadelphia's young guns are going to be dealing with Boston's core for the foreseeable future. I would much rather he have the ball in his hands making things happen on a night where Embiid clearly didn't have it, but you'll never hear me complain about him making sure a hated rival feels that he's there late in a loss. Now do that on the scoreboard, young fella.