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January 09, 2020

Instant observations: Embiid-less Sixers beat Celtics to clinch season tiebreaker

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Ben-Simmons-Sixers-Celtics_010920 Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports

Ben Simmons was a defensive beast before his back injury forced him off the floor for at least two weeks.

The Sixers earned another quality win over the Boston Celtics on Thursday night, clinching the season series with a 109-98 win on their home floor without Joel Embiid.

Here's what I saw on Thursday.

The Good

• One of the best stretches the Sixers have played with out Embiid came on Thursday night in the back half of the second quarter, with the Sixers embracing defensive concepts they have leaned away from this season. By utilizing more switching, sending traps and blitzes at ballhandlers, and leaning into the mobility of Al Horford, Philadelphia climbed back into a game Boston was leading comfortably.

Philly did the same to open the second half, seemingly allowing Horford to move in and out of different defensive concepts on the fly. One play would be a hedge where he ended up single-covering Jayson Tatum, forcing an errant miss from three, the next might be in "centerfield" with Horford sagging and baiting a tough midrange shot.

They ponied up a lot of money and opportunity cost to bring Horford in here, but when Embiid has been healthy they have basically just asked him to play like Embiid on defense, which has felt like a misunderstanding of why he's so good. Playing the way they did around him on Thursday is tougher, as it requires better understanding from the entire team, but is ultimately a better use of his defensive talents.

(When we learned about Embiid's troublesome hand pregame, Brown promised changes to the defensive coverage around Horford. We'll see if these tweaks stick and how prominent they'll be.)

Horford's improved night on defense carried over to the offensive end, where he took the first important step (knocking down shots) and sprinkled in the passing that has helped separate him from other bigs over the years.

• Josh Richardson finally seems to be settling back in the groove he was in before exiting the lineup with an injury earlier this season. It may just be a function of the role he has been asked to play in recent weeks, shouldering a lot of the offensive load in the pick-and-roll, but he looks comfortable and the results have started to match.

Richardson didn't do this against a weak slate of defenders, either. He tortured Marcus Smart at times on Thursday night, who has consistently been one of the most rugged defenders in the league over the last few years. And when Richardson got switches on the likes of Enes Kanter, he simply had no chance.

With Embiid out of the lineup, the Sixers have a desperate need for someone to fill the free-throw void created by his absence, and Richardson led the charge for Philly there in the early stages of the game. They probably need him to sustain that even longer, quite frankly, but it feels silly to drag the one guy who made a concerted effort to get to the line against Boston.

• I don't think this was the breakout performance from Ben Simmons that some people were expecting with Embiid out. And while Horford was the guy who anchored the defense for long stretches, Simmons made some pretty special plays on that end himself and continues to make his All-Defense case look stronger.

After a turnover late in the third quarter that bounced right off of Norvel Pelle's hands, Simmons singlehandedly blew up a Celtics fast break and sent the Sixers running the other way, eventually finding Norvel Pelle for an easy basket with a touch pass. He makes these sort of plays with regularity, but that shouldn't mean they're taken for granted. Add onto that some great individual defense on Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and he had quite a night on defense.

• Pelle was the immediate beneficiary of open time in the rotation, and while he was far from perfect, I thought he was pretty good. He made the plays everyone is used to him making, coming up with insanely acrobatic plays around the rim to wall off the Celtics, but more importantly he made plays without having to jump at all, trusting his length would be enough to get it done against Kemba Walker in the paint.

That is the next step for him as a defender and is the most common issue most big men have to work through before they're playable on good teams. Pelle obviously has excellent tools, and if they can continue developing his instincts, they might have something here.

• I was all ready to crush Furkan Korkmaz for his performance through the first 24 minutes of the game, but credit to him for coming out in the second half and hitting some big shots in limited minutes. 

The Bad

• Brett Brown decided tonight was the night to dust off lineups with Simmons as a small-ball five. I am not opposed to it as a general concept, and given his success as a roller this year, it's a look they should probably toy with some more with Embiid on the shelf.

Here's what you absolutely can't do — play him there with several defensive targets on the floor at once. And you especially can't do that against a team like the Boston Celtics that thrives punishing matchup advantages, as the Sixers found out the hard way in a playoff series two seasons ago. Forget Tatum and Jaylen Brown, consider Smart, a burly guard who is going to eat guys like Trey Burke alive on the low block.

The more concerning thing from my vantage point is that this group didn't score at all. The whole idea behind putting Simmons at five is to surround him with shooters and offense-friendly players, and the Sixers found it tough to find creases in Boston's defense anyway. If that group can't score, there's no reason they should be on the floor together.

(Not the best sign for Kyle O'Quinn that Brown immediately pulled the small-ball card out of the deck, by the way.)

• I'm not sure if Mike Scott would have gotten the starting nod this game if Matisse Thybulle was at full strength, but he certainly didn't deserve it on merit. The lack of shooting he has brought to the table this season is being compounded by boneheaded mistakes he makes on both ends of the floor, contributing to struggles that they have a hard enough time powering through as it is.

One example: at the end of the first half, the Sixers were attempting to run a spread pick-and-roll with Richardson and Simmons, the former of whom had an excellent first half attacking Boston. But instead of doing what he needed to do — stand in the damn corner and keep his hands up — Scott decided it was time to cut into the path of the action, blowing up the play better than the defense could have.

This kind of stuff is happening too often with him this season. 

• The Sixers should start fining Simmons every time he tries to throw a jump pass from the paint. Those moments inevitably lead to some great looking plays, but the success rate is nowhere near what it needs to be to justify playing that way.

Several times on Thursday night, Simmons had reasonably good chances to attack the rim, but the Celtics were waiting on pass attempts the whole time and either created or nearly forced turnovers. You can play to set up the pass, but you can't be so averse to attempting shots that teams can bait you into throwing passes to waiting defenders. 

It should be noted, however, that Simmons had a good offensive night, all things considered. Using him as the screener in pick-and-rolls with Richardson has been good money for Philly as of late, and has helped the Sixers get more value out of Simmons in late-game situations. That is critical as we inch closer to the playoffs, even if I am nitpicking his turnovers. Unlocking him in crunch-time is perhaps the biggest barrier for the Sixers to overcome.

• Tobias Harris could have picked a better time than now to go ice cold as a shooter. He has been the natural candidate to assume more responsibility on offense whenever someone is out this season because his offensive game is so pliable. Unfortunately, it doesn't matter how many ways you can score if shots aren't dropping no matter how you try to score.

Outside of a highlight dunk attempt that somehow turned into a soft roll into the basket, Harris was quiet and (mostly) ineffective against Boston. He mostly got to his spots, so we can chalk it up to just a tough shooting night.

• Not going to crush Matisse for looking like a guy who hadn't played basketball in a bit. Everyone gets a game or two to get their legs back under them after a layoff, rookies especially.

The Ugly

• Whoever designed the jerseys the Celtics wore on Thursday night should be banned from designing anything for the rest of time. They look like the villains in a Disney Channel Original Movie.

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