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August 17, 2020

Instant observations: Sixers drop Game 1 to Celtics thanks to turnover problem

The Sixers fought valiantly to hang in down the stretch against the Boston Celtics, but they dropped Game 1, 109-101, thanks to a rampant turnover problem that doesn't seem to be going away.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If you were wondering whether Joel Embiid was going to come out ready to leave his imprint on the series, shooting 100 percent from the field in the opening quarter was a heck of a start. 5/5 in the opening quarter, Embiid got his every which way, rolling to the hoop, posting up smaller Celtics players, and even hitting a stepback three reminiscent of Dallas Mavs great Dirk Nowitzki. He had it all going:

Defensively, though he got caught in the air a few times trying to contest Celtics shots at the rim, it felt like Embiid discouraged or altered a bunch of possessions that otherwise would have ended with layups or dunks. That's the power he has to shape the game.

However, Embiid tailed off after the hot start, save for an uptick in free-throw shooting. I put a healthy portion of the blame on structure. 

The Sixers did not make a pointed effort to get him the ball and hunt switches for the big man as the game wore on, and beyond that, his supporting cast showed a complete lack of awareness to kick off the second half. You should never go the first few possessions of a quarter without your big man touching the ball near the basket. 

When he followed that start to the second half with a trail three that he probably shouldn't have shot, it shouldn't have been surprising. You learn to feed the biggest dude on the floor from the time you start playing basketball. This isn't calculus.

Not all of it was due to structure. Once Embiid was rolling, the Celtics started getting a lot more aggressive with their double teams, and he did not manage the game well once the pressure came. Philadelphia's turnover problem (which we'll get into below) started with him.

He has the capability to dominate this series. The team has to give him the opportunity to do so, and he has to help himself out more when he has the chances. Both things can be true.

• I don't know why Boston spent so much of the first half shading extra attention toward Tobias Harris — he has a ceiling as a scorer and you could probably live with him getting hot from the mid-post for an entire game. But for a guy who has never been an especially adept playmaker, Harris was one of the few Sixers who made the easy plays and was rewarded for it, coming up with a whopping seven assists in the first half alone.

And when the second half started, it was Harris who was at the center of a lot of the work Philadelphia did to get back into the game. A push in transition for an and-one layup here, an offensive rebound there, he did the little things we've become accustomed to seeing from him in Orlando to keep the team alive and buy time for the rest of the guys to catch up. He has, weirdly enough, become their third-quarter guy, the catalyst for better second halves who keeps them from drowning in what has historically been a bad period for them.

Like with Embiid, they need more volume.

• Shake Milton looked way over his head in the first quarter of Monday's game, but he bounced back in the second half of his first-ever playoff game, a good sign for his chances to contribute in this series.

Taking the Kemba Walker assignment seems a little bit above his head, but it actually makes sense on paper, as Milton can chase over screens and try to funnel the diminutive guard toward Embiid, whose length is a major problem when Walker gets anywhere near him. Walker ended up being fairly ordinary for most of the game, knocking down a few long twos but not taking over the way you'd expect against Milton.

I'm still wary of his ability to contribute to a series win. Milton goes up the floor constantly in protect mode with the ball, and frankly he still doesn't do a great job of keeping it away from his defender. Add that onto the fact that it limits his ability to create separation, and it's a bad mix. He's going to be best off with multiple creators on the floor alongside him, where his plus-shooting comes more into focus.

• Alec Burks is going to get a ton of time and touches in this series, and he's going to deserve them. There were times when his ability to self-create was the only thing they had going for them on offense, and I must once again point out that the Sixers need more guys who can dribble and shoot, not fewer.

That said, you can see his limitations when he's thrust into this larger role. He's got some of the same decision-making problems as Josh Richardson, and when he has to do more than hunt his own shot, he's in trouble. Luckily, hunting his own shot exclusively is an upgrade over contributions from some of the other guys.

(Another thing — Burks and Embiid missed a decent handful at the free-throw line on Monday, with Burks' miss in the final minute a real heartbreaker in particular.)

The Bad

• How you view the first quarter is a litmus test. Do you celebrate the hot shooting against one of the league's best defenses, or lament the turnovers that kept the margin much closer than it should have been?

Maybe there are some sunny optimists out there, but the latter point is just blinding. I don't think making a bunch of tightly-contested shots is a sustainable offense. As good as Embiid was as an attacker early, he was just as bad trying to distribute the ball and take advantage of the coverage tilting his way. I think there's a pretty easy explanation for that: rather than making the simple play, he got a little too caught up in making home run passes for guys who would immediately take an open look, instead of relying on team ball movement to eventually find the open shot.

Frankly, it was the only reason Boston was in the game early. Philadelphia was on fire, but the Celtics scored nine points off of seven Sixers turnovers in the opening period, closing what should have been a decent gap between the two teams.

Some of this is about personnel. There's an old saying that there's a difference between 82-game players and 16-game players, and the Sixers have far more of the former. They don't have quick decision-makers, and that leads to guys like Richardson and Burks passing into windows that disappeared before the pass was even thrown. In Richardson's case, that's also a problem that manifests in shot selection, with three-point shots turning into contested mid-range nonsense.

And look, of course, some of this falls on coaching. The Sixers have cycled through personnel over and over and the turnover problem has been a constant. A better, more rigid structure is probably what a lot of these guys need, and Brown likes to play out of "concepts" vs. set plays so things can unfold organically. That's an idea with merit in ideal circumstances, but probably not with this group.

• I said coming into the series that I understand the arguments behind starting Al Horford or Matisse Thybulle. I still think trying to use size is valid, and Horford held up well defensively at times. But if this is the "Playoff Al" who was promised, the reason for paying $109 million to protect the team in the minutes where Embiid is on the bench, good grief did they screw up.

Some people will see the positive and focus on Horford's emotional reaction on a putback near the end of the third quarter, as well as the team's 13-0 run to close out that frame. That stretch doesn't make up for the other bouts of ineffectiveness and Horford falling short on the things he is supposed to do well. Embiid turnovers against doubles are sort of expected at this point. Horford struggling there is just not acceptable. 

And then you have plays like these that just sum up the double-big partnership:

The Sixers are no better with Embiid off of the floor now than they have been at any point since he got to Philadelphia, they're just paying more money for the privilege of fans being mad at the plus-minus numbers. Maybe that's a sign they have to start thinking differently about how to support Embiid.

• One of my biggest gripes with this Sixers team is that they aren't a more dominant rebounding team at their size. Basic fundamentals and effort would end a lot of possessions, but guys like Embiid and Harris end up flat-footed and waiting for the ball to come to them on far too many opponent misses, especially since they've been in the bubble.

Is a box out too much to ask for? The irony is the Celtics are a much smaller team built in an entirely different way than the Sixers, but they're a much better "bully ball" team than Philly. Marcus Smart is an ass kicker. Jaylen Brown has guys bounce off of him. Hell, Grant Williams came in off of the bench and threw his damn weight around. The Sixers get punked far too often for being the sort of team they want to be.

• Within the first half, the Celtics made an adjustment that allowed Jayson Tatum to get going and neutralized some of Thybulle's effectiveness. Boston tried running Thybulle through screens early on, and that's an area where Thybulle does fairly well regardless of the matchup. After some early struggles, Boston went the other way, allowing Tatum to work in isolation against Thybulle to much greater success.

And that underscored a point I've brought up several times over the last week: none of Philadelphia's top remaining defenders are true lockdown wing guys, or really anything close. Thybulle and Richardson are too jittery against guys who are capable of blending tempo, transitioning from a move to a counter-move, and finishing from odd angles. The gambling and reaching they do gets exposed in longer stretches against star-level players, and when they have to be the head of the snake defensively.

The rookie having ups and downs is whatever, he's young and was excellent early. Richardson's headless chicken act is just exhausting. If you get beat by a guy making tough shots, you tip your cap. That's basketball. Giving Tatum a free runway to the rim because you can't stand still and guard your assignment is absolutely ridiculous.

• On the negative side with Harris, he was putrid on the defensive end. He was either caught flat-footed, reaching, or lost without a plan over and over again, and was part of the welcome mat the Sixers rolled out for Tatum in the first half.

They are not going anywhere if he doesn't tighten it up. They might not be going anywhere regardless, but still.

The Ugly

• You watched Philadelphia's offense on Monday night, do I really have to explain it to you again?

• It's going to be tough to guard Tatum regardless of officiating, but if he's getting some of the star calls he got in Game 1, it's going to be tough for them to hold him under 30 points a night.

The most egregious call of the night, however, did not involve Tatum at all. Horford wrapping up Brown was a hard foul, but a reasonable basketball play midway through the fourth quarter. Upgrading it to a flagrant was par for the course in today's league — Brown embellishing the contact a bit made sure that would happen — but is no less excusable.

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