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February 26, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers lose to Celtics on Jayson Tatum gamewinner

Joel Embiid played one of his best-ever games against the Celtics and it still wasn't enough, with a Jayson Tatum game-winner proving to be the difference in a 110-107 Sixers loss.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Al Horford used to be a symbol of the growth Joel Embiid needed to go through to join the league's elite. For his first couple of years in the league, Horford was a constant thorn in his side, most notably in the playoff series they lost to Boston in 2018. Boy, have the times changed since — the Sixers showed absolutely no fear of that matchup, and Embiid made Horford look like an aging 36-year-old.

There was not a whole lot of mystery to what he and the Sixers wanted to do. In a season filled with possessions starting with Embiid at the elbow, this was old school, post-up basketball for a lot of the night. Clear out a side, give him an entry, and let him go to work. And more often than not, that led to success for Philadelphia. Horford stood him up on a possession or two, but Embiid spent most of the first half either driving him toward the rim or simply going by him, scoring on a few possessions where Horford never moved as Embiid coasted past him.

It helped that Embiid made smart decisions out of the post, making it difficult for the Celtics to send the doubles that have frustrated the big man over the years. On one first half possesion, Jayson Tatum tried to join Horford on the left block to fluster Embiid, and the big man immediately fired a pass to the cutting Tobias Harris, who dashed through the space vacated by Tatum and scored at the rim. 

That is the key to beating up on this Celtics group for Embiid because if he makes them regret sending help toward him, the Sixers will feel confident he can beat consistent single coverage. The version of Embiid that scores in single-coverage matters, but it has to come with the proper patience, selflessness, and vision that makes his teammates better.

If the Sixers had a chance to pull this game out down the stretch, it was only because of Embiid. With Harden sputtering and nobody else in a groove in the fourth quarter, it was up to Embiid to can midrange jumper after midrange jumper, moving back to the elbows after a night spent in the post. Horford was hanging on for dear life on basically every possession, and frankly, his actions basically didn't matter by the time we reached crunch time. Embiid was in the zone, and his old foil was helpless to stop it.

He deserved better than he got from his teammates. We were robbed of one of the all-time end game shots from Embiid by the clock, but he can feel proud of his effort in this game.

• Whatever the Sixers did to get Tobias Harris in the mood he was in to start this game, they need to do it before every game, or every playoff game at a minimum. Perhaps he's just riding the momentum of a huge closing stretch against the Grizzlies on Thursday night, but he came out in the first quarter locked and loaded, and he was a big reason Philadelphia got off to a fast start.

Harris' dwindling shooting volume was a fairly large subplot over the last couple of months, hidden somewhat by his hot start to the year. You would not have known it watching him against the Celtics — Harris stepped confidently into a series of threes early in this game, building some momentum with shots in semi-transition and then running the Celtics over from that point onward.

I'm not sure why he faded from their plans in the second half, but he was a worthy sidekick to Embiid for much of this game.

• P.J. Tucker has looked a lot more like, well, P.J. Tucker during the games that have mattered this season. I know that he was brought here with the idea being he would help set the culture — and I do think he does that more on defense than he's given credit for — but I think people might want to start considering that he's managing his energy and his legs for when the games really matter. Maybe he's just healthier right now, but either way, he is moving and playing as well as he has all season, and he is a difference-maker when he's at his best.

In the first half of Saturday night's game, Tucker had a few of the momentum-shifting rebounds that made Sixers fans groan throughout the playoff series against Miami last year. In the halfcourt, the Celtics were content to just abandon him in the corner on offense most of the game, and he was good enough from there to make Boston second-guess the approach at times.

• Small subplot from the last few games — James Harden has clearly raised his overall effort and "give a damn" levels on defense recently, making some noteworthy hustle plays in transition while staying connected to his guys in the halfcourt. Some of the doubts about their ability to win a title stem from Harden's apathy (or inability) to lock in on defense, so if he's able to stay engaged when it counts, that's a big boost.

• A potential point of intrigue if these teams play in the playoffs — the Celtics are probably not going to be able to play their preferred starting lineup with Robert Williams III and Al Horford on the floor together. When Boston ran that out there, the Sixers were content to have Embiid playing free safety and mostly ignoring Williams, which junked up Boston's offensive plans.

The Bad

• Doc Rivers essentially stuck with the rotation we saw the other night against Memphis, bringing Harden in with the subs to open the second quarter to avoid Boston. To be clear, that is absolutely the right thing to do. But there are some definite problems with the group they brought in once Embiid is off of the floor, namely that they have too many bad defenders on the court at once.

Opening the second quarter with a Harden/Maxey/McDaniels/Niang/Reed group, the Sixers got next to nothing out of the Maxey and Niang part of that combination on offense. In fairness, they weren't set up particularly well — Paul Reed ended up being a spacer in the corner, for example, which might be a thing he can do long-term but certainly isn't something he should be asked to do right now.

Anyway, with Maxey and Niang struggling and Harden not exactly at his best as a decision-maker, the Sixers had three different defensive liabilities on the floor while getting zero offensive benefits from doing so. Boston picked them apart and forced the Sixers to reconsider their lineup choices, and that's when the real game began.

Matchups like these illustrate the problem with relying so heavily on someone like Niang, who has been an awesome role player for Philly but ultimately does not have anything to fall back on if he's struggling on offense. He only managed to play 13 minutes, and he arguably didn't even deserve that many in this form.

• Everyone has wanted to pile on Doc Rivers for not playing Paul Reed, and while I'm certainly not advocating for Montrezl Harrell to return to the rotation, you can see exactly why Reed isn't the fix they need behind Embiid. There are still a ton of young player mistakes being made, errors that can be the difference between surviving the minutes without Embiid and letting the opponent go on a big run.

Reed was awful during his first shift in the first half, and Rivers quickly pulled him a couple of minutes after Reed was called for basket interference on a shot that was already going down for Philly. Playing small ball with PJ Tucker at center looked like the move for the rest of the night...right up untl Rivers played Reed to open the fourth quarter, with another disastrous minute sending him back to the bench.

However, onto the bigger problems...

• If the Sixers got even reasonably solid outings from Harden and Maxey, they might have coasted to an easy victory. But neither guy offered much of anything all night, and Harden shrinking in a big game is going to bring up all of the old questions and storylines about his ability to shine when the lights are brightest.

Dribble penetration has not been much of a problem for him in recent weeks, and Harden did have some good moments in space, though he didn't do much to capitalize when he was able to get by Boston defenders. After smoking Jayson Tatum on a drive in the first half, Harden smoked the layup attempt even worse, airmailing the shot off the glass and past the rim from the right side.

The rest of the night was about that ugly, save for the rare occasion where he got a stepback three to go down. Harden kept getting stonewalled before getting to the paint, and he settled for a lot of midrange junk that clanged harmlessly off of the rim. I would argue his passing was actually worse, though, with Harden committing some serious errors sharing the basketball that we're not accustomed to him making.

Maxey was arguably even worse, though he was able to make a couple of big shots in the fourth quarter to keep hope alive for Philly. The Sixers seemed to get the worst of both worlds from the Melton/Maxey combo in this game, with Melton often ignored by the Celtics on offense and Maxey failing to do anything aside from a lot of running east to west. With Harden alongside the bench unit, Maxey didn't even really need to make plays for others, and he still struggled to do much of anything positive. 

They win this game if the guard play was better, period.

• The Sixers should probably guard Al Horford on the perimeter. #Analysis

The Ugly

• I really hope we get to see a Sixers vs. Celtics series in the playoffs this year, though I feel that way basically every season. These two teams are really good, the fans get up for these games more than any other matchup, and it would add to the long and storied history of this rivalry. Sign me up for seven games.

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