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November 15, 2023

Instant observations: Sixers fall to Celtics, drop second straight

The Celtics were without Jaylen Brown and Kristaps Porzingis.

The Sixers hosted the Boston Celtics for the second time in a week Wednesday night, seeking to once again defeat the team that eliminated them from last season's playoffs and reclaim the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Here is what jumped out from the rematch between the two best teams in the East, a 117-107 Boston win:

Notable absences

Some juice was taken out of this rematch an hour and change before it even began when Boston ruled out stars Jaylen Brown (illness) and Kristaps Porzingis (knee). The pair, which is averaging a combined 42.6 points per game this season, represents Boston's second- and third-leading scorers behind superstar wing Jayson Tatum. Sam Hauser and Al Horford filled in for the two missing starters.

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid once again played after being a game-time decision due to left hip soreness. Nicolas Batum missed another game due to personal reasons, though Sixers head coach Nick Nurse indicated pregame after talking to Batum that the veteran would not miss more than one additional game. Kelly Oubre Jr. remained out due to his rib fracture. Tobias Harris, initially listed as probable after suffering a scary neck injury last night, indeed suited up. Robert Covington received another starting nod in place of Oubre Jr. and Batum.

An ugly, ugly first quarter

It always behooves a team to get off to a hot start. The Sixers could not have been further from that Wednesday night, getting outscored 37-22 in the first period. They were bludgeoned on both ends of the floor, as Boston got whatever it wanted offensively while consistently limiting the Sixers to poor looks. 

Embiid, typically dominant in the first 12 minutes of action, was limited by Horford early. Embiid finished the first quarter with a 2-5 shooting line and a turnover. The Sixers failed to get him going early, which oftentimes leads to issues. This was one of those occasions.

With Tyrese Maxey silent in the first quarter, the Sixers needed positive contributions from their bench early. They got anything but that. Patrick Beverley and Marcus Morris Sr. were the team's first two substitutions, and each one played very poorly, combining to go 0-5 from the floor with a plus-minus of -13 in fewer than five minutes of play. Furkan Korkmaz and Danuel House Jr. failed to do anything of note as well, while Boston got production out of all four of their first quarter reserves.

A much nicer second quarter

This one felt like it could be headed towards blowout territory after the first quarter. It turns out that was very much not the case. The Sixers' non-Embiid lineup gave them a major jolt of energy right off the bat, with several pieces giving them key minutes. 

Paul Reed did his job well, protecting the rim, grabbing rebounds and even dishing out a couple of assists and knocking down a three at the end of the shot clock.  

Robert Covington scored 10 first-half points without knocking down any of his three-point tries, thanks to two put-back dunks, two driving layups and a pair of free throws. His defense was excellent as well, as it continues to be ever since he returned to Philadelphia. His combination length and dexterity allow him to remain impactful on that end of the floor.

Then there was Jaden Springer, who hasn't seen extensive run in a long time. He checked in at the beginning of the second quarter after Beverley and Morris Sr.'s struggles — likely an instance in which Nurse went off-script — and instantly knocked down a corner three, intercepted a pass and slammed one home. He committed two turnovers on a travel and moving screen, but played terrific defense, grabbed a couple of rebounds and scored another basket inside. Springer played so well that Nurse opted to leave him out there for the entire second quarter, a very unusual occurrence.

Much left to be desired in the third quarter

The third quarter belonged to Tatum and Horford, who each rained shots from beyond the arc over the Sixers' outstretched arms. Outside of that, it felt extremely similar to what happened in the first quarter. Embiid failed to establish himself against Horford, Maxey's impact was minimal and the Sixers' first few substitutions — again, Beverley and Morris Sr. — struggled mightily. 

Beverley has had his moments this season, but he has also failed to make any sort of consistent impact as an offensive player. His defense is good, but not good enough and not at an important enough position to entirely make up for his offensive woes. The Sixers don't need him to blow the doors off opposing defenders, but they need a level of competence that right now they aren't getting. Morris Sr., meanwhile, just lacks defined NBA skills at this point in his career. Aside from spot-up jump-shooting, he fails to register any noteworthy abilities on the floor right now. His defense is not impressive, and neither is his offense. Nurse has mostly pushed the right buttons so far this season, but this is a questionable experiment at this point.

An eventful final frame

A lot happened in the final 12 minutes of this one. There was Springer shining again, ripping the ball from Tatum and throwing down a reverse dunk in transition. There was De'Anthony Melton, continuing his offensive resurgence by knocking down some enormous threes and getting the crowd as loud as it had been all night. There was the Sixers going to a zone defense, briefly giving them some success.

But then there was a Boston takeover. Derrick White made timely shot after timely shot for the Celtics, halting every Sixers run with a big bucket. There was Tatum, driving in transition and finishing an acrobatic and-one after a sloppy Embiid turnover. There was Horford, stifling the reigning NBA MVP time and time again, as he has done before.

In close games between great teams, it comes down to which team's best players come through. On a night when the Celtics were missing two of theirs, the Sixers banked on their guys getting it done. Instead, it was Tatum, White and Horford who made big play after big play to put the game away in the fourth quarter.