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February 12, 2019

Instant observations: Upgraded Sixers lose to Celtics again

Sixers NBA
021219-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) loses control of the ball in front of the defense of Boston Celtics center Al Horford (42) during the first quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

The Sixers may have a much better starting lineup and dreams of a Finals appearance, but they're still just as flustered as they've ever been against the Boston Celtics. Philadelphia fell 112-109 to Boston on Tuesday night, leaving them just one more opportunity to exorcise the Celtics demons before the playoffs roll around.

Here's my snap reaction to Tuesday night's game, and we'll have more to come.

The Good

• This is the exact matchup the Sixers went out and got Jimmy Butler for. They replaced a standstill shooter with a guy who can put the ball on the deck and hurt you in all sorts of ways, and he was one of the big positives for Philly on Tuesday night.

We saw Butler in a bunch of different looks, including the pick-and-roll sets that were at the heart of that spirited debate with Brett Brown in December. The Sixers succeeded out of those sets, with a pair of back-to-back possessions resulting in an and-one layup for Butler and an open layup for T.J. McConnell, who caught the defense napping with Boston keyed onto Butler and Joel Embiid rolling down the middle.

Philly went down quickly in last year's playoff series because they had no scoring juice in isolation. Butler has helped them rectify that problem, and his ability to playmake on top of that gives them lineup flexibility they didn't have before.

• T.J. McConnell is one of the only Sixers players who doesn't seem to be completely thrown off by this matchup. He goes about his business and plays his game, and while it might be a different story with Kyrie Irving on the floor, McConnell's demeanor is a big plus in a matchup with the Rozier/Smart backcourt.

• Boston's treatment of Ben Simmons remains a big hurdle for Philadelphia to clear, but Simmons is still making a difference on the other end of the floor. The Celtics turned to Jayson Tatum in isolation situations a ton without Kyrie Irving available, and Simmons didn't give him an inch of space, keeping him flustered and relatively ineffective for a lot of the game. It was switches that ended up freeing Tatum to kill Philly off in the end.

I do think the change in approach we've seen from Simmons over the last couple months appeared in spots on offense, too. He didn't shy away from the free-throw line despite struggling there all night, but that's the side of the ball he needs to improve on big time.

• Is it a good thing for the Sixers that they might be better off in this matchup with Kyrie Irving on the floor? I feel like that may be the case. There's a massive difference on the offensive end of the floor when the Celtics have to choose who Irving is defending in Philadelphia's starting five vs. when they can put Terry Rozier or Marcus Smart in that role.

Smart chasing Redick around screens is just a much different experience than Irving doing so, whether you're talking about attentiveness, toughness, or just about every other defensive intangible you can think of. It was a bummer we didn't get to see Boston at full strength to see how exactly these two teams will match up if they meet in a playoff series.

• Credit to Embiid for rallying in the fourth quarter after having Horford kick his butt for most of the first three quarters of the game. He hit some huge threes down the stretch, and the ovation for his and-one over Horford late in the game got the loudest cheer of the night by far.

Unfortunately, the rest of the game still happened, as we'll discuss below.

The Bad

• It was not the dream start the Sixers would have hoped for after statement wins over the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers. The same problems the Sixers have had with the Boston Celtics continued to linger, and one would presume they are not going away.

For me, it all starts with how the Celtics are able to hold up in one-on-one coverage against Embiid with Al Horford on the floor. Whereas most teams don't have a chance to stop him one-on-one, the Celtics very much do, and when they do send doubles they're great at reading Embiid's next move before he makes it, jumping into the passing lanes that briefly open up.

The Sixers don't need Embiid to win this matchup overwhelmingly, but he's not even drawing even with Horford right now. He stands him up in the post, and the longer Embiid has to work down there, the more susceptible he is to turning the ball over or putting up a bad shot.

Philadelphia's newness playing together doesn't help, certainly. But if Embiid can solve this puzzle, the entire matchup changes without any other adjustments. We've seen him string together some great stretches against Boston, just not often enough.

• I think there's a role on this team for Jonathon Simmons, though I don't think this would have been the first night I would have thrown him into the rotation for real. He took all of James Ennis' minutes, and it led to a lot of possessions where the ball swung to him on the perimeter and he dribbled into traffic without much purpose.

(I did like using him situationally as a defensive option, so hopefully, we get some more of that moving forward.)

Don't love Boban Marjanovic in this matchup either, and as I noted in what I wrote after the trade went down, I think he's a more situational player than the Sixers are currently treating him as. I think this is a team the Sixers would need Jonah Bolden against, especially if Daniel Theis is getting the backup five minutes for Boston. When your opponent forces Boban to run the floor, you're already losing the battle.

The margins matter in this matchup. Brown is experimenting at this point in the season which is fair enough, but I think I would rather see how Bolden holds up here than see if Boban's career and matchup trajectory changes midseason.

And, by the way, the Sixers can't say they're at a talent disadvantage against this team anymore. Brown's decisions are going to be under the microscope more than they've ever been.

• Easily the worst game we've seen for Tobias Harris in a Sixers uniform so far. His shots were coming up short from all over the court, whether he was firing from deep or attempting layups in traffic. You could also see his newness shine through in some of his defensive rotations, with the Celtics springing free for open looks on a couple botched rotations from Harris.

The Celtics have a tendency to bring the worst out of you, and Harris was a victim on Tuesday night.

• Butler could have picked a better time to start missing free throws than the fourth quarter of tonight's game.

The Ugly

• Everything about this matchup is ugly, if we're being honest. With Al Horford defending Joel Embiid as well as anybody in the league, Philadelphia's offense gets junked up right from the start, and that's before you even consider the contributions of guys like Marcus Smart. On the other end, the Celtics have never been an offensive juggernaut, especially without Kyrie Irving on the floor.

That essentially turns this into a battle of who can make the most contested looks. The Celtics have a handful of guys who thrive in that environment, Marcus Morris and Jayson Tatum being two of them. Philadelphia's upgrades this season help them there for sure, but with their top-end talent being what it is, you would expect them to look a little less discombobulated, and a little less reliant on hitting mid-range fadeaways.

Perhaps that comes with more time playing together — this is the best defense they've played as a group by far. We'll see where it goes.

• Ben Simmons was barely finished posing after his own dunk before he got served a fresh plate of revenge by Jayson Tatum.

The Sixers actually did a pretty great job of defending Tatum on Tuesday night, with Simmons leading the charge there. But I doubt a lot of people will remember it after that play.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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