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January 22, 2021

Instant observations: Ben Simmons carries Sixers late in win over Celtics

The Sixers closed out the Celtics with terrific two-way play in the fourth quarter on Friday night, riding Ben Simmons in crunch time to earn a 122-110 win over Boston.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid had to play through foul trouble in the first half of Friday night's game, limiting his minutes and forcing him to make some business decisions on the defensive end. Even playing through those issues, the big guy was immense yet again, dropping 16 points in just 14 first-half minutes, brutalizing Boston from all over the floor. 

There was a moment in this game where things looked like they were going to go sideways for Embiid, with the MVP candidate missing a few shots in a row and losing his mind on the officials in the process. In another season, Embiid might have checked out of this one mentally and let it go off of the rails. But Embiid kept his head in the game and put 11 more points on the board before another foul stuck him on the bench yet again, making the most of the precious time he had.

It is not always going to be a night where everything goes your way, even in the midst of the sort of season Embiid is having. The important part is making the most of the time you have on the floor, and Embiid got his money's worth and then some against Boston on Friday night. 

An impressive 38 points and a whole lot of jawing with the opponent later, it's another one in the win column for Philly. This is some sort of season he's having. 

(One longer-term concern I have for him and this team: Embiid's numbers on midrange jumpers are absolutely outrageous right now, and I expect they're going to come back to Earth at some point. How big of an impact will that have on his game? It's hard to say, but the good news is his shot selection has not been an issue at almost any point, with the big guy playing judicious basketball. I think he'll figure it out if the numbers dip.)

• The Sixers badly needed someone to step up and carry the scoring load on Friday night, with Shake Milton struggling and Embiid in and out of the lineup due to the aforementioned foul trouble. Tobias Harris was the man on a mission, hitting an array of tough shots over outstretched arms to keep the Sixers within striking distance throughout the game.

Harris may be bigger than Marcus Smart is, but taking the Celtics guard down to the low block is usually a losing proposition for the offensive player. Honestly, I would still probably advise against doing that, it just didn't matter much Friday night, with Harris needing only a sliver of daylight to make shots from the mid-post. The Sixers have gone away from a steady diet of post plays with Harris this year, but it came back and worked effectively against the C's.

In the middle of all that, Harris had one of the best (if not the best) defensive sequences he has put together in a Sixers uniform, absolutely clamping Grant Williams on the baseline and then blocking his shot to punctuate the play. The defensive stop got the Sixers out in transition, with Ben Simmons eventually finding Seth Curry in the corner for a three as he faded into the team's bench area. 

The effort has always been there on the defensive end for Harris — okay, maybe not always — but his fundamentals have been sharper and like many others on the team, he appears to be benefitting from the changes made by new assistant Dan Burke, who is coordinating the defense for Rivers' staff.

When he can do the little things like that on top of his offensive output, Harris is an impact player. Even when he hasn't, he has been really good for the Sixers this season, earning All-Star level praise from teammate Embiid. Not a bad guy to get an endorsement from at the moment.

• Curry can't possibly shoot 60 percent from three for an entire season, but he sure seems like he's on a mission to try. Entering the game a complete unknown after a multi-week layoff, Curry stepped back into the starting lineup like he hadn't missed any time, immediately tying things together on offense the way he had before his stint in the health and safety protocol.

You can see a notable difference in how teams react to Curry potentially getting an open three compared to basically any guy on the roster. 

• Once again, it was a tale of two sides of the ball for Simmons. You'll be shocked to learn that his offensive output will be discussed further down this article, but it is breathtaking watching him on defense at times, assuming Rivers has him on the most important matchup at a given moment. Simmons blew up handoffs, picked guys pockets when they tried to attack him in isolation, and was effective in the "roaming" role the head coach seems to enjoy having him in off-ball.

It's like watching a completely different player when he's attacking matchups on the defensive end. He has the confidence to take calculated risks, in possession of the knowledge he can recover to contest or put out his own self-created fire. 

The Sixers are able to use him in basically any situation and matchup besides small-ball center, and when you combine that with Embiid's defense at the rim, they can be overwhelming at times. They were just that when it counted in the fourth quarter, with Boston scoring most of their points down the stretch on broken plays.

For the second straight game, I also thought he made some huge plays in the final quarter to see this one out, and that wasn't limited to the defensive end of the floor. He made a sensational effort to force a tough Smart attempt in transition with about five minutes to go, and he followed that up with seven straight points for Philly, playing downhill basketball with Boston breathing down their necks in crunch time. The snowball got rolling downhill and didn't stop.

Nobody is asking him to be Allen Iverson, chucking up 30 shots a game. But it is clearly within him to set the tone physically, and good on him for coming up large in the fourth on Friday night. 

• Doc Rivers needed the good version of Dwight Howard to emerge from the bench on Friday night, and it took most of three quarters for him to finally get there. Howard did just about everything wrong in the first half, botching communication with teammates on defense, fumbling the ball into Boston's hands on the offensive end, and picking up cheap fouls with screen attempts that ended possessions for Philly.

He was as important in the third quarter as he was bad in the first and second. Howard was possessed on the offensive glass, forcing the Celtics to take several fouls to contain him on Philadelphia misses, playing a pivotal part in the Sixers stretching the lead heading into the fourth quarter. Credit to him for the rally.

• Matisse Thybulle probably should not be playing in lineups with Dwight Howard and Ben Simmons on the floor at the same time, but he played an important role once again on Friday, coming up with at least 2-3 highlight-reel plays on defense against Kemba Walker. The C's are going to be a brutal cover once Jayson Tatum is back in the lineup, and they'll need everything Thybulle can give them in order to slow down Boston's perimeter attack.

• Minus the lack of fans, this was a game that had playoff-level intensity and drama throughout the night. This is what a Sixers-Celtics game should feel like regardless of the circumstances.

The Bad

• He deserves a bit of slack for trying to adapt to the way the game was being officiated (read: poorly) but Embiid did allow his foul trouble to impact how he defended, often to Philadelphia's detriment. There were at least a handful of times where Embiid was one-on-one with a Celtics player attacking the rim, and he conceded the basket entirely instead of trying to offer resistance.

It was a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, and since it allowed him to stay in the game through crunch time, I suppose you could say he made the right call. But I do think he's capable of playing through foul trouble without resorting to matador defense in the paint.

• In L.A. last year, there were nights and matchups where the Lakers basically nailed Howard to the bench and used other players to get it done. It's a bit easier to do that when you can just play Anthony Davis at center and employ one of the greatest basketball players of all-time), but the Sixers are probably going to have to consider exploring alternative options soon, even if it's just as a precautionary measure looking forward to the playoffs. 

They're not going to get anything better from the rest of the bigs they have on the roster, so they might as well toy with some small-ball stuff, especially when the Sixers are playing a team with a small-ish front line like Boston. Now's the time to figure this stuff out. 

• Furkan Korkmaz seems to have a relatively long leash in Rivers' eyes, and while his shooting last season was enough to get him on the floor, he has not earned the amount of trust the coach has put in him so far this year. On top of the missed shots on clean looks, Korkmaz was ending up crossmatched on guys he has no business guarding, dealing with players like Jaylen Brown for some reason I can't figure out.

Rarely do you see a guy airball two separate runners in the same quarter, but Korkmaz managed to pull that feat off on Friday night in the fourth quarter. We have seen plenty from Philadelphia's young bench players to suggest this should be an open competition, not a race he's the undisputed favorite in, and we'll see if that's how it shakes out over time. Given Rivers' preference to play vets at the cost of developmental reps, I would prepare for a lot of Furkan.

The Ugly

• Smart's flop in the first quarter was so audacious that I was almost in awe of it, two days removed from his comments about Embiid "flailing" to gain the favor of the officials. As many others have noted sine Wednesday night, it takes a master of the craft to recognize his equal. Smart and Embiid had a bit of a moment near halfcourt in the timeout that followed shortly afterward, so clearly there isn't a whole lot of bad blood there.

Coming into the game, I was curious whether Smart's comments about the officiating Wednesday would play any sort of role, and the Sixers were certainly on the end of a few quick whistles after handily winning the free-throw battle in the previous meeting. It frustrated Embiid to the point that he took his anger out on some water being offered to him after he checked out of the game:

That did not stop as the game wore on. He dropped an audible f-bomb after one sequence where he thought he was fouled multiple times in the third quarter, and it's hard to to blame him for how mad he was throughout the night. The officials were so off the pace of this one that they allowed the wrong free-throw shooter to step to the line for Philly late in the third quarter, and were forced to ask for a redo on an attempt Tobias Harris made for Shake Milton.

Whether it was just how the game played out or a product of his vocal complaint, Smart picks up a victory in this battle.

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