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February 09, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers lose to shorthanded Celtics in final game before trade deadline

The Sixers blew a golden opportunity to gain ground on the Celtics in the standings, dropping a 106-99 loss to a shorthanded Boston team.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• When the Sixers played the Celtics in the playoffs in 2018, the series was largely defined by Boston's aggressive matchup hunting. The shooters that juiced up Philadelphia's stretch run, a la Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, suddenly had to try to hold up in isolation against quicker, more athletic players. It was also a huge story in the 2021 loss to the Hawks, but in the other direction — Philadelphia's inability to punish Trae Young on defense was a huge part of that series loss.

Suffice it to say it's a bit different with James Harden running the show. When the Celtics brought Luke Kornet into the game in the first quarter, Philadelphia's point guard wasted absolutely no time trying to involve Kornet on every possession. Even though it seemed to bother Embiid, who tried to fight for good positioning inside the arc, the Sixers got three straight wide-open looks at the basket as a result of Harden manipulating 

Harden's decision-making was sensational for most of this game, and as was the case in the first meeting this season, there weren't a whole lot of concerns related to his attacking. If the Celtics didn't offer help behind Harden's man in a pick-and-roll, he got to the rim relatively easily, eating up good defensive players like Derrick White. 

This game looked just about wrapped up midway through the fourth quarter, with Boston nursing a double-digit lead and the Sixers stalling out a bit on offense. Uninterested in watching shooters brick away their chances, Harden started dancing on the perimeter, conjuring points for Philadelphia out of mid-air. A stepback three, a few free throws, and all of a sudden the Sixers were within striking distance.

If most of the team was awake or alive during the game, Harden's contributions might have been a bigger deal or pushed them to a comfortable victory. He likely created 20 assists worth of open shots and was let down by a ton of poor finishing.

• P.J. Tucker looking decent against good teams — even an undermanned good team — is a positive development. 

The Bad

• The biggest problem in this game for Philadelphia: overhelping off of shooters. It was common enough that I have to assume it was what they were instructed to do by the coaching staff, and if that's the case, I can't really figure out why they didn't adjust the gameplan at some point. 

This was not a dominant scoring outing for Jayson Tatum, serving as Boston's lone star for most of the evening. Tatum was just 4-for-10 from the field through three quarters, putting together some nice moves but ultimately on the wrong end of the efficiency battle. Philadelphia guarded him as if he was burning the nets down, and to his credit, Tatum punished them for it, hitting open shooters around the perimeter all night.

It's one thing to try to offer a bit of extra resistance against a star, but the Sixers were giving up threes that are better covered in pre-game shootarounds. Even if the Celtics had bad shooters, they would have probably come out on the winning end of this decision.

Preparation has not been their strong suit for most of this season, and that is a worrying sign.

• Aron Baynes once spent a playoff series making essentially the first threes of his career against the Sixers. Blake Griffin has a far superior offensive history, but with a choice between sticking Embiid on a different assignment or letting Griffin shoot threes, the Sixers opted to do the latter.

It's a decision I agree with, at least to a point. And Griffin's third three of the opening period is the sort of shot I would be pissed about conceding to him as a coach — Griffin caught a pass in the corner off of a baseline out-of-bounds play, rising into a catch-and-shoot jumper with Embiid touching the paint, never pretending to contest the shot or even the initial entry pass. The Sixers paid him a little more attention the rest of the game, but Griffin had already found his shooting groove by then, which made it hard to stop the pain even with decent contests on Griffin the rest of the night.

Sadly, that level of attentiveness and activity flashed a few more times throughout the first half. Jeff Van Gundy acknowledged it on the broadcast, remarking that the Sixers had been slow to the ball after Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown chased a rebound so hard that Tatum actually elbowed his teammate in the face, knocking him out of the game before halftime.

I'm not asking for the Sixers to go out headhunting one another to pick up a rebound, but I continue to have concerns about their ability to sustain fight and activity. Even if you factor in a jump from regular season to playoff intensity, the leap this group has to make is too big for my liking. You don't want to lose a playoff game (or worse, a playoff series) because you allowed the opponent to outwork you. 

• The Celtics came into this game down their two best big men and were forced to guard Embiid with a combination of Griffin, Kornet, and Grant Williams. Early on, you could feel that.

As long as Embiid was getting the ball consistently, he was basically scoring at will against the Celtics. The group of smaller defenders was able to get away with a bit of extra contact against him — Embiid picked up a tech arguing this point in the second quarter — but he largely had his way with them, splitting double and triple teams while shooting over single coverage whenever he got an opportunity to attack it.

But I thought this was a disappointing overall performance from Embiid, who was far less influential after halftime and had some horrific brain cramps in big spots. The Sixers gave up a lob to Kornet on an ATO with around three minutes left, and it was the only place they could go with the ball on the possession. Embiid can't blame his lack of preparation for that play on anybody but himself.

He has not exactly been dialed in since winning the Saturday matinee against Nikola Jokic. That needs to change.

• Doc Rivers made the change to his substitution patterns that many people were complaining about during the Knicks loss earlier this week. Tobias Harris was put alongside Tyrese Maxey, giving the young guard another creator to help shoulder the offensive load. It didn't make much of a difference. 

I'm all for picking apart bad lineups, but if Maxey is going to play the super sub role, he simply has to be better than this. His play is, has, and will be the biggest factor in the bench's success, at least until they (presumably) stagger Embiid and Harden in the playoffs to make sure one is on the floor at all times. And Maxey's issue at the moment is his value being so tied up in his scoring. When he can't get shots to drop, Maxey struggles to flash the other little pieces of his game, drowning as the solo ballhandler. Too many possessions with Maxey leading the offense go exclusively side-to-side, rather than toward the basket.

Even when he got to play next to Embiid and/or Harden, Maxey could not get much of anything going in this one. Game-to-game consistency has not been there for Maxey since he returned from injury, and his inability to settle into the new role is worrying as they come down the stretch.

• Harris having a bad game is not a huge deal on its own, though I am starting to get concerned about his changing approach and his drop in effectiveness as a shooter. After he went on TV and told everyone to tell a friend of a friend that he's a sharpshooter, Harris began trending back toward his old tendencies as a shooter. He was the recipient of some awesome passes from Embiid and Harden during this game, and he either flubbed those chances or stepped out of them altogether, turning an open shot into a stalled-out possession.

The worst one came in the second quarter on Wednesday, with Harris refusing to take an open corner three before dribbling himself into no man's land. It was up to Harden to try to bail them out at the end of the shot clock, and Harden's eventual miss turned into a Celtics run out, which turned into a Tatum three.

If Harris misses and Boston scores, fine, it happens. But if I were running the Sixers, it would worry me that Harris is straying from the blueprint that worked earlier this season. Something to consider while making final assessments ahead of the deadline.

• Sometimes, I wonder if De'Anthony Melton knows you're allowed to pull the ball out in a 1-on-2 in transition instead of trying to finish over/through two different guys. Perhaps he would make a few more layups if he considered this.

• The Sixers have won games in undermanned situations this year, which is a reason not to flip out when you end up on the wrong end of one of those games. But this was an absolutely golden opportunity to beat a Celtics team with most of their important players out — how many times are you going to play them without Smart, Horford, Williams, and Brown, even if the last one was just for a half?

This game was there to be had, even in a pretty poor performance, and they were not good enough to take it. It's probably not the sort of effort you wanted the night before franchise-altering moves could be made.

The Ugly

• Two fouls for Matisse Thybulle in one minute of action in the first quarter. As Chris Heck used to tweet all of the time, #OnBrand. 

• Montrezl Harrell having a player option for next season is a real soul-crusher. It's bad enough that he has been this bad, but you can't even walk away from him in the offseason unless you eat the money or trade him. Terrible!

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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