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May 03, 2023

Instant observations: Celtics spoil Joel Embiid's return in Game 2 blowout

After the Sixers pulled off a Game 1 upset, the Celtics thrashed the Sixers in Game 2 to tie up the series 1-1 before coming to Philly this weekend.

Joel Embiid returned for a game that ended up being a boring slaughter, with the Celtics winning 121-87 in a Boston massacre.

Sorry, I couldn't resist. Here's what I saw.

The Good

• If you were the Sixers, you had to come into this game expecting the Celtics might throw a haymaker in the opening quarter, with Boston hoping to shift the momentum as the series heads to Philadelphia. It took a little while for that flurry to come, which is a credit to the Sixers' early effort as they re-integrated the biggest piece of their lineup.

Joel Embiid was certainly part of that early resistance. After a Game 1 filled with easy layups at the hoop for Boston, the Celtics had to second-guess every single attempt they had at the basket. When they didn't, the long arm of the law was there to send the Sixers running the other way before the Celtics knew what hit them.

With over half of the second quarter still remaining, Embiid had already put together a highlight reel's worth of plays at the rim. There was an early shot alter of Derrick White, a block on Marcus Smart in semi-transition, isolation plays where he was forced to hold up his end of the bargain against Jayson Tatum, you name a guy and Embiid had to guard him, even if temporarily. The best of them all was a Jaylen Brown dunk attempt at the rim that could have ended with Embiid crumpled under a Brown poster, but the big man met him with force and turned him back:

There were some clear struggles on the other end of the floor for the whole team, as they tried to strike a balance between getting their MVP involved and doing what worked in Game 1. Embiid certainly contributed to those — he had an okay night if we just look at free throws and mid-range attacks, but there were sloppy turnovers and moments where you were reminded of previous struggles against Boston. They ended up spending too much time with Embiid on the block instead of attacking from the nail, which allowed the Celtics to swarm him the way they have so many times over the years.

As a result of their offensive ineptitude, the idea that the Sixers should have sat Embiid regardless of whether he was cleared bounced around social media. But I couldn't disagree more on that one — getting the initial rust out of the way was important, as was getting some game conditioning for Embiid prior to the home games in this series.

Think about it like this. A Celtics performance of this caliber was going to beat the Sixers in about 90/100 games. They caught absolute fire from three in the third quarter, locked in on defense, outcompeted Philly, and generally outclassed them in every way. Better to get the early Embiid struggles out of the way in that game than in Game 3 at home, which could either tilt the series in Boston's favor or keep it firmly in Philly's possession.

No need to panic yet.

• His efficiency was not the best, but I think Tyrese Maxey is starting to figure some things out in this matchup, as he did a decent job of attacking Boston inside the arc. 

The Bad

• Ahead of the playoffs, Tyrese Maxey noted that one of the things he learned across his first two playoff runs is the importance of valuing every possession. He committed a cardinal sin in the first quarter and forgot that fact — with a chance to pick up a valuable turnover and run the other way, Maxey got caught between two minds while trying to scoop it and run, allowing Grant Williams to come up with the loose ball for Boston. Moments later, Marcus Smart canned a big momentum three.

The Celtics were the team that made more of those plays on Wednesday. On one possession in the second quarter, four different Sixers stood flat-footed and watched as Derrick White came careening through traffic to scoop up an Al Horford miss, giving the former Sixers big another crack at an open three. Horford would not miss twice on one possession.

Little plays like these add up over the course of any playoff game. Boston made more of those, and the Sixers were fortunate they didn't add up to a bigger advantage before halftime. They didn't have the same luck after halftime. 

• This game was largely a story about the role players on both teams. Boston got big lifts from some of their secondary guys, most notably Malcolm Brogdon, who punished Sixers players for giving him too much space in the first half. By contrast, the only Sixers role player who looked at home in this moment was Paul Reed, who should theoretically be the most gunshy and undisciplined man in Philadelphia's rotation.

Run through the list and you can pick out problems for each of them:

  1. P.J. Tucker's intensity on loose balls and defense did not carry over to his offensive approach, with the veteran forward reluctant to shoot the ball despite getting plenty of open opportunities from deep. You could see the frustration from other Sixers players, notably James Harden, and Tucker's struggle to let it fly allowed the Celtics to use Horford as a roamer and clog things up for the Sixers on offense.
  2. Jalen McDaniels looks like a player who is not quite ready for this moment yet, off the pace and still trying to figure out where to be while shuffling through rotations with teammates. Brogdon's two first-half threes were both a product of McDaniels mistakes, sagging too far in one instance and botching a communication with Harris on another.
  3. Georges Niang may have been the worst of them all, and his place in this series was an easily identifiable trouble spot heading in. Giving him a chance to add shooting value makes plenty of sense, especially with Tucker struggling on offense as he did in this game, but Niang gave them nothing there. In fact, Niang had arguably the worst record-scratch moment of the game from downtown, turning a decent shot-or-swing opportunity into a drive that ended at Marcus Smart's chest around the free-throw line. Boston pushed the pace the other way, got an open three out of it, and padded their lead before halftime. A six-point swing, essentially. 

Niang is the guy who probably gets the most flack from the fanbase for playing at all, which I get, but Tucker's stinkbomb was by far the most impactful poor game of the bunch. With how little he offers them on offense, he has to be sensational in the rest of what he does to leave a positive impact. He didn't come anywhere close on Wednesday.

And those weren't the only mistakes from the role player contingent. De'Anthony Melton had his moments defensively, yet he still managed to give back some points on offense, air balling an open transition three and doing far too much off-the-dribble. 

A lot of these issues can be chalked up to the impact of playing on the road, where the warts of role players tend to show more than they do at home. But the Sixers will need somebody from this group to step up as the series heads back to Philadelphia.

(I understand they won't want to change the rotation dramatically after a Game 1 win, but I don't think it would be crazy to try Danuel House Jr., Shake Milton, or perhaps both off the bench. Doc Rivers should be looking at every option.)

• As good as Embiid looked on the defensive end, many of the problems that haunted Philadelphia in Game 1 (and frankly, all season) carried into the follow-up performance. Over-helping off shooters was a problem, containing dribble penetration was an issue, and it's a bad sign that Embiid was arguably their best option when defending Celtics players who were attacking from the perimeter. Frankly, the second-best option may have been Reed, their backup center. That's a sad state of affairs.

Shooting will normalize in the friendly confines of the Wells Fargo Center, but the Sixers have to adhere to more coherent defensive principles in Game 3. 

• This was certainly not the rip-roaring performance James Harden offered for Philadelphia in Game 1. He was 0/5 from downtown at halftime, struggling to find the range after destroying Boston's drop coverage two nights prior. And yet, it still felt like he was on his way to a good game in the first half, in part because he kept coming even with the shots clanging off of the rim, eventually rewarded for the attacker's mentality.

You used to hear this all of the time, but not so much over the last two years — Harden put a ton of pressure on the officials to give him calls, and not because he was gyrating or flopping or doing much more aside from playing with a bowling ball mindset. Harden was able to offset his early shooting struggles by marching to the free-throw line over and over, notching eight attempts at the stripe by halftime. There were plays where he was turned away at the rim as Al Horford swooped in from help positions, but unlike ill-fated drives in the first round, these were misses I thought you just credit the defender for, with Harden going up strong and simply coming away the loser.

Unfortunately, he did not seem to have the legs in this one two days after Game 1, which is a concern for a series that is played every other day all the way through a potential Game 6. Harden looking dynamite after a long layoff doesn't tell us that much about his durability over the course of a long, physical series, and it's on him to offer a better performance back home.

• I wish there was more to analyze beyond the typical "make or miss league" clichés, but the Sixers were both inaccurate and unwilling to let it fly from deep for much of the night. Their best players were cold, their role players were cold and hesitant, and only Tobias Harris made it out of the game with a line that looked worthy of a playoff game.

Boston took way more threes and made way more threes. Sadly, it is often that simple.

The Ugly

• The Sixers were quite fortunate that P.J. Tucker is close to indestructible because Marcus Smart dove into him while pursuing a loose ball with Tucker's leg essentially locked in place. I'm not in the camp that thought it was intentionally dirty, but careening into a guy's legs in pursuit of a loose ball is not exactly above board.

• Maybe some complaints to be made about the officiating on individual calls, but I didn't think anything tilted beyond "standard home playoff game whistle" territory, which Philly will have on their side on Friday and Sunday. The Sixers didn't play well enough to even get into whistles as a factor in the game, anyway. 

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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