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May 11, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers squander closeout opportunity in Game 6 vs. Celtics

The Sixers blew an opportunity to go to the Eastern Conference Finals in Game 6, losing 95-86 to the Celtics to set up a must-have Game 7 on Sunday. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• You could argue the most important moment of this game for the Sixers came three minutes into the third quarter, when Doc Rivers called a timeout to pull P.J. Tucker out of the game in favor of Georges Niang. Think of how improbable that sentence is — most people wanted Niang out of the rotation at the beginning of this series, and few thought he would be playable in this matchup at any point.

But with the Celtics trying to make the double-big lineup work, Rivers brought somebody in that Boston couldn't ignore on the perimeter. All of a sudden, the Sixers were getting into their sets, running pick-and-rolls, and finding gaps in a Boston defense that had looked close to impenetrable for over two quarters.

The spacing he provided wouldn't have mattered if Niang had simply gotten destroyed on the other end, and when his presence on the floor forced the Celtics to go away from the two-big lineup, that had to be the concern for everyone wearing the red, white and blue of the Sixers. But Niang held up his end of the bargain there, including on a possession where he clamped Jayson Tatum and forced a turnover from the Celtics' star wing.

To win an NBA championship, you are going to need most of the roster to come through for you at some point. Niang was a massive, game-swinging player for the Sixers in a lot of regular-season battles, and Rivers trusted him in the most important spot of the playoffs to date.

• The Celtics looked well on their way to an ass-kicking through the first five minutes of the game, disrupting the Sixers on offense with their two-big lineup that was pulled out of cold storage with the season on the line. And all it took for the Sixers to snap out of that early funk was a single defensive play from Tyrese Maxey, who jumped into a passing lane and took it all the way to the basket by himself, kicking off a 9-0 run for Philadelphia. 

Maxey was just about the only guy who looked ready for this game in the first half, pulling up whenever and wherever perhaps to his own detriment. As Doc Rivers has mentioned during this series, there have been times when he gets to the paint and doesn't realize he should be looking for somebody on the perimeter instead of forcing the issue at the rim. We saw some of that on Thursday, as Maxey tried to make up for the slow and stagnant offense Philadelphia played elsewhere. 

But his persistence as a driver would end up paying off in the end, in part because Maxey's shooting was his most important contribution to this game. The Sixers didn't have a whole lot going from deep otherwise — the Harden/Embiid/Harris trio was a combined 0/7 from deep midway through the third quarter, with the game crying out for some sort of outside threat. It was Maxey who provided it.

Once he got rolling from deep, Maxey forced the Celtics to chase him out to the line and close hard, which left their bigs in the unenviable position of trying to meet him on the perimeter and then return to the rim. He put Horford and Williams in the blender a time or two, flying right past them for buckets at the rim that were tough to come by for anyone else.

And I never thought I'd be saying this, but man, has Maxey dug deep on defense against the Celtics in this series. Asking him to switch onto guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown sounds like a recipe for disaster, bringing back memories of playoffs past where the Sixers got smoked by this exact wing combo. But Maxey has punched above his weight, making disruptive plays off-the-ball while getting into the chest of bigger players on the perimeter. Hats off to that young man.

The Bad

• There are a ton of places and people to spread the blame around to in this game. But an honest accounting of what went wrong in the first half starts with your two frontline stars, who did not show up ready to go and dragged the rest of their teammates down with them.

When Joel Embiid started to play purposeful, physical basketball in the low-post, the Sixers started to make inroads, in part because he was able to put both of Al Horford and Robert Williams III in foul trouble. But getting him the ball was a problem they dealt with for most of the game, with Boston's double-big lineup essentially allowing the Celtics to triple-team (or at least double-team) Embiid. Starved for touches and driven further away from the rim, Embiid would end up settling for a lot of tough/long jumpers early in this game, and he couldn't find the range.

I wasn't particularly in love with the plan, either. The Sixers didn't run a whole lot of pick-and-roll at that configuration early, perhaps because they anticipated that the Celtics would shrink the floor and funnel the offense toward P.J. Tucker in the corner. But if you're living in fear of Tucker getting open looks there over and over again, you probably shouldn't have him in the game against that look. That's the shot you have to trust him to make, and he struggled there early, leading to even more slow, clunky isolation basketball in the middle of the floor.

As a matter of fact, quick detour...

• Boston's two-big lineup works in this matchup when the player Robert Williams is roaming off of in the corner can't take advantage of the open threes the Celtics are gifting him. The big storyline coming in was simple — if P.J. Tucker makes his threes, it's tough for Boston to get away with that style. Unfortunately for the Sixers, Tucker ran cold for most of the night, and Boston got to pack the paint to stop the Sixers' bread-and-butter in the middle of the floor.

This is not a "If you make enough threes, they will guard you" situation, not in this spot with the season on the line. The Celtics were going to give Tucker as many open threes as the Sixers were willing to let him take, and either he was going to make them or the Sixers were going to have to sub him out.

That moment came just a few minutes into the third quarter, when Rivers had seen enough and subbed Georges Niang into the game. 

Back to the big two...

• It didn't help matters that Harden struggled on the other end of Philadelphia's top connection, struggling to generate downhill momentum and throwing up some absolute junk in the first half, praying that he would draw a foul call. He might have been hard done by a non-call once in the first half, but most of his issues were on failed junkball attempts, Harden getting a little too cute instead of going hard toward the rim.

(Notably, Harden's best moment of the first half came when he beat his man on the perimeter and dared Horford to challenge him at the summit, with Horford opting to watch Harden punch one while dealing with foul trouble.)

Even when the Sixers had pristine floor spacing and got decent-ish matchups in the middle of the floor, the Sixers' star combination was wasteful with the opportunity. Harden didn't make much of an attempt to attack the Celtics once he got through the first line of defense, and Embiid didn't out enough pressure on Boston below the elbows, even after they'd gone away from the double-big lineup.

Harden spent most of this game on his ass and hoping to get a call. Embiid was better, but certainly not a world-destroying star, and nowhere close to good enough to close out a team like the Celtics. They will wear this loss, because they are the pairing that makes the offense go. If they look like this on Sunday, they are cooked. 

• After a resurgent, if foul-plagued performance in Boston, Tobias Harris swung back to the other side of the spectrum on Thursday night. This was as bad as it gets for him – poor finishing at the basket, nothing to offer as a floor spacer, leaky defense on the other end, and little more than the occasional hustle play.

There was a big momentum-shifting moment in the first half, with the Sixers getting a stop and James Harden unloading a beautiful pass up the floor that Harris could finish without breaking stride. But he flubbed the scoring opportunity, sucked the air out of the moment, and Boston scored on the ensuing possession, a five-point swing on top of whatever value you place on things like momentum.

Harris put together some good defensive moments in the third quarter, stripping multiple Celtics drivers to send the Sixers running the other way, but he undid that work with offensive ineptitude and some poor decision-making against the Celtics' big wings. 

• De'Anthony Melton made one of the plays of the season in the third quarter of this game, flying in for an insane offensive rebound and somehow managing to throw an on-the-money pass to Georges Niang in the corner while still frozen in time in midair. The combination of length, leaping ability, and coordination to make that happen was astounding.

Unfortunately, Melton was Arctic tundra cold and absolutely killed them in a stretch during the fourth quarter that could have iced the game for Philly. Melton being essentially unplayable in that spot was rough, as you'd rather have his defense out there than have to protect Niang.

The Ugly

• A horrific performance from the officials early in this game, independent of how the Sixers played. They made a horrible read on a goaltending call that was a clean block for Embiid, missed an up-and-down travel for Jaylen Brown that was easy to spot from the opposite side of the court, and missed Marcus Smart wrapping Embiid around the wrist while fighting for a loose ball, on a possession where Embiid eventually get called for a take foul.

We can argue about some of the other calls, but this was an egregious miss:

Not even close! And then we had the clusterf*** where the Sixers took two clear-path free throws, the officials allowed 30 seconds and a review to go by, and then Tyrese Maxey had to step back up to the line and knock down the clear-path free throws again. Absolutely horrendous job by the entire crew. 

• If Jayson Tatum had resembled even a replacement-level basketball player, the Celtics would have been winning this one going away at halftime. His first halves in this series have been truly disgusting, and he topped them all with an 0-for-10 stinker that almost singlehandedly kept the game within reach. 

Of course, he was also the guy who put this one away in crunch time. 

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