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May 10, 2023

In Game 5 win, the Sixers simply destroyed Boston's preferred defense

To figure out how the Sixers picked up perhaps the biggest road win of the last 20 years, you have to tie together so many different fragments of the game. There was cold Celtics shooting, an unlikely Danuel House cameo, grit from P.J. Tucker, and giant bounce-back games from Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris.

But if I would have said the words "drop coverage" to you five years ago, you would have assumed I was explaining how the Celtics got rolling on offense in a win over the Sixers. On Tuesday night, it was a giant reason for the Sixers' offensive success and has been one of the defining features in every win for Philadelphia.

The Celtics have telegraphed what they want to do with their big men through the first five games of this series. On most ball screens, and especially the screens set by Joel Embiid in Harden/Embiid pick-and-rolls, Boston wants to drop the big back and protect the rim, hoping to slow Harden with rearview contests while leaving Al Horford or Robert Williams III in a position to get back to Embiid when needed. It is a gambit that relies on Harden either missing pull-up jumpers or attacking without pace, giving Boston precious seconds of time to reset and recycle.

There are numerous benefits to this style of coverage, which is why we've seen the Sixers use Embiid in it for the majority of his career, but soft spots open up when you have defenders backpedaling by design. And nobody has been better at finding and pounding those weaknesses than Embiid and Harden. 

Tuesday night's game featured a series of Embiid looks from midrange that are essentially practice shots, uncontested shots from the free-throw line that Embiid is close to automatic on.

Both sides of the partnership make this work. A big man with less touch than Embiid would be given those midrange shots all night long, and a guard with worse timing would deliver these passes too early or too late, allowing Boston to recover. But this duo has perfected their craft over the last year of working together, working to find their drumbeat over months and months of reps.

(Notably, Harden has also been content to pull up for midrange jumpers in this series, something we saw early in the year that faded for the bulk of the season. This creates extra stress on the Celtics' defense, as Harden being a willing midrange shooter adds just a little hesitation on Boston's behalf.)

The Celtics have persisted with this coverage in part because Harden has made it difficult to play any other way. Horford has struggled to keep Harden in front of him while matched up with him on an island, and Williams' strengths are around the rim, flying in with help or challenging a driver at the basket. Switching is not really a great option on the other end when it requires a wing-sized player like Jaylen Brown to pick up Joel Embiid on defense. That requires something close to an automatic double-team from the Celtics, and they have shown historically that's not their preferred method of guarding Philly.

Embiid's willingness to trust his teammates has been another critical component of neutering Boston's ability to vary coverages. At times on Tuesday night, the Celtics attempted to bring Horford up higher and force the ball out of Harden's hands. But with Harden hitting clean pocket passes to Embiid, all the big man had left to do was read where the tag was coming from. Quick decisions from Embiid at the nail leave Boston dead to rights. And even when Embiid was out of the game, Harden undressed the Celtics when they tried to take away the middle of the floor.

(Again, shout out to House for coming out of mothballs and tearing it up for Philly.)

Boston's other big card in this series has been to float Horford to the corner to "guard" P.J. Tucker, using him to roam on the backline while asking Marcus Smart to pester Embiid, often fronting him to make entry passes more difficult. 

This has been a relatively productive setup for Boston, at least an interesting wrinkle to fold into the game plan, but the Sixers have had some counters to this, too. Philadelphia will occasionally play out of "HORNS," a setup that puts two players at the elbows on either side, using Tyrese Maxey as the lead ballhandler out of this look. With Harden setting the initial ball screen for Maxey rather than Embiid, all Maxey has to do is beat the first level of defense to put the Celtics in a tough spot. 

As Maxey turns the corner on this look, he has an open Tucker in the corner with the Celtics overly concerned about preventing Embiid from getting a touch. And because of where Horford is positioned to guard Embiid and Tucker at the same time, he's in no position to contest Maxey at the rim, making this a foot race that No. 0 is best positioned to win.

Maxey had a sensational shooting night against the Celtics on Tuesday night, thanks in large part to the same Boston defensive weaknesses that we saw Embiid and Harden exploit up top. But this play was a great example of how they can utilize his strengths when Boston mixes up their defense.

This is not to say the Sixers have solved the defensive puzzle and will walk to a Game 6 win, but there was an ease with which they operated in Game 5 that was shocking on an initial and repeat view. Boston will look at the tape and see a lack of urgency on defense, some of which they can correct with season-on-the-line urgency. That being said, the Sixers deserve a huge portion of credit for figuring out ways to punish the Celtics no matter how they set up in Game 5.

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