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May 04, 2023

What went wrong for Sixers in blowout Game 2 loss to Celtics?

Boston's Game 2 demolition of the Sixers ruined what should have been a triumphant return for Joel Embiid, fresh off of winning his first MVP trophy. Instead, the Celtics gave Philadelphia a spanking, opening up some old wounds and sending a reminder that stealing Game 1 on the road does not mean this series is close to over.

So how did the Sixers lose such a laugher?

Boston taking the fight to Philly

If there was one play that summed up the gap in desperation between these two teams on Wednesday night, it was this sequence late in the first half, with the Sixers still mostly hanging on in spite of a sluggish start. 

All five Sixers players are in or around the paint as the shot leaves Horford's hands, and they really only need to block out one guy here, because Jaylen Brown's body language suggests he's conceding this one. Derrick White cutting through the entire on-court roster is just a miserable thing, and it was not the only moment of effort-related ineptitude.

We noted coming into the Brooklyn series that the Nets were not a team particularly good at punishing Philadelphia's weaknesses, and that was true to some extent with Boston, too. Philadelphia's control of the possession battle helped them come out in top in the first game, matching the Celtics in offensive rebounds while causing 10 more turnovers than they committed. The Celtics won both battles in Game 2, and the Sixers felt that in their bones after the game.

"We knew obviously after Game 1 they were going to come out here with more energy and more pop overall, and they did. They got pretty much every 50/50 basketball that was out there, the hustle plays, offensive boards, and the open threes as well," Tobias Harris said on Wednesday. "There were just too many times, too many empty possessions that didn't result in a made shot for us that allowed them to get out and run and have us on our heels...we have to be better as a whole group."

"They played with more desperation than us," Joel Embiid added. "We knew they were gonna try to respond after that first win, first game, and we just wasn't ready enough. We'll fix it."

While it's nothing to throw the series out over, considering Philadelphia's advantage in the same department in Game 1, it is a reminder that these plays matter much more when the talent gap shrinks and you have to create small advantages against an elite team. Boston's overall margins were not huge here — the Celtics won the offensive rebounding battle by two and the turnover battle by five — but that was more than enough, and those margins felt larger in the meaningful parts of the game.

Three points > two points

It does not take a basketball genius to find the primary reason Philadelphia lost. The Boston Celtics took 51 threes and made 20 of them. The Sixers took 30 threes and made just six of them. That is a gap of 42 points in a 34-point loss, and you could effectively end the recap right there. 

Let's start on Boston's much more successful side of the ball. Looking at the shot chart, something that jumps out is the location of most of their makes — just three of Boston's 20 three-point makes came from the corners, with most of their shots coming on longer attempts on the wings and in the trail position. The Celtics taking a heavy dosage of non-corner threes isn't remarkable on its own, as they have a bunch of capable pull-up shooters who will step into good looks if you allow them to. Philadelphia can't worry about good players making tough shots, but they can certainly hammer a few key weaknesses of their own.

The big ones, as they often have been this year, were containing the perimeter and overhelping off of shooters, one of which the head coach hammered at the podium.

"I thought what was under our control is just dribble penetration. They lived in the paint, which just created threes," Doc Rivers said Wednesday. "The other night they lived in the paint and they tried to drive it. I think early on, they realized Joel was there, and after the third or fourth blocked shot they kept driving, the difference is they were kicking it out, and we didn't do a very good job of scrambling back out."

That's only part of the problem, though. Yes, the Celtics have had the advantage attacking Philadelphia's problematic defenders in this series, but the Sixers have not found a happy medium between showing the Celtics bodies in the paint and protecting the three-point line. In situations where the Sixers were in a decent position to stop Boston, they undid whatever good work they did with poor, meandering placement away from the ball. James Harden was a big culprit, as seen below when he cheats toward the paint without putting himself in a position to steal a kick out or contest the open three.

Later in the second quarter, Georges Niang gets torched off of the dribble by Malcolm Brogdon, forcing Paul Reed into action to help on the driver, with De'Anthony Melton trying to tag Robert Williams III behind him. The result is a pass to Grant Williams on the wing, and a three to push the lead to 26.

Harden standing in no man's land negates the opportunity for one of the three guys in the area (likely Melton) to execute an x-out switch to cover White if Harden rotates to Williams. You could also take your chances that Brogdon doesn't find Williams III on the drive over/around Reed, and force the Celtics to live with a potential two-point trip rather than an open three. The Sixers managed to select the worst choice of all, which was conceding so much space that a shaky pass from Brogdon didn't matter a bit. 

One of the reasons Philadelphia's inability to position properly on defense is so aggravating is that spacing is arguably the key tenet of their offense, the theme of basically every discussion Rivers has with the media. They drill their understanding of floor spots and subtleties in the halfcourt relentlessly, but when it comes to positioning themselves to protect the three-point line on the other end, they go through stretches of pure cluelessness.

And look, I don't need to walk you through the parade of missed shots for the Sixers. They were all bad — you don't go 6/30 without a bunch of guys combining to stink it up.

Working through Joel Embiid's rust

"We knew there were going to have to be some kind of growing pains bringing him back, and that's why we got it out of the way today," Rivers said. "There were several times that he had matchups that he was looking to pass, especially early in the game, he was really trying to defer. We really don't want him to do that, but I get it, you know?"

Bringing back the MVP of the league was meant to be a shot in the arm for the Sixers, but this was always the danger for Philadelphia whenever the big man came back against Boston. Philadelphia had spent over a week drilling through things with Embiid essentially not participating in practice, so the Sixers were going to go through an initial period of readjustment once he came back.

To Rivers' point, this also led to some moments where the big man tried to force a "team first" approach when selfishness may have been preferred. This turnover on a Harris cut is a good example, with Embiid trying to thread the needle on a play that would have required him to be near-perfect to overcome the crowding in the middle of the floor.

The hope for Philadelphia is that this part of the loss will fade some in Game 3 and beyond, as Embiid gets his legs back under him. The big man did indicate after Game that the knee issue is as bad as some reports have suggested, and that two more days of rest before returning wouldn't have done him much good, making the decision to play on Wednesday an easy one.

"With what I have, it's supposed to be out for 4-6 weeks or something like that. So I'm not going to be 100 percent for that whole time, or I'm not going to be fully healed for that whole time. It felt pretty good to play, and I feel like I can help the team defensively and offensively," Embiid said. "I just felt like it probably would have been the same result as far as how I'm feeling for Game 3, probably rusty and not myself, but I feel like just got this out of the way. Disappointed by the loss, but that's a step toward getting back to myself, and obviously, I got a lot of work to do. That starts tonight and tomorrow to make sure I'm ready for Friday."

As good as he was protecting the rim, part of that work on Embiid's end will be improving his overall sharpness on defense, too. While he held up fine on switches he did make to cover Celtics players on the perimeter, there were several times when he showed reluctance or disinterest in flying out to the three-point line, in spite of calls from teammates to rotate over. The treasure every possession mindset has to start with the big man, even if that means embracing a different style of role on offense to leave him with more gas in the tank on defense.

The good news is that he appeared to move better than I think most expected, with the hope being there is minimal swelling or day-after pain for Embiid coming out of the loss. Injury or not, he believes being out on the floor washes away any excuses.

"There's no excuses," Embiid said, "I'm out here so I'm good, I'm good to play. We just got to be better as a team, we didn't execute what we were supposed to do."

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