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February 26, 2023

5 major takeaways from Sixers' heartbreaking loss to Celtics

Joel Embiid crushed the "Embiid Stopper," P.J. Tucker shined as a small-ball center and more thoughts from the Sixers' tough Boston loss.

Coming off of one of their best wins of the year, the Sixers played the No. 1 seed Celtics to a standstill for most of 48 minutes, falling at the buzzer on a tremendous shot from Jayson Tatum. The loss left a sour taste in the mouths of many around Philadelphia, but the area's most cynical beat writer is here to tell you that it's really not all bad.

Here's what I came away with after rewatching most of the game and chatting with the players last night.

The margin for error is slim

Most of the Sixers' top players identified the same key stretch while discussing the game in the locker room. After pushing the lead to 15 in the third quarter, the collective assessment was that they let the game get away from them.

"We had too many possessions with not great looks that we needed to fall," Tobias Harris said after the game. "When we get those leads, we got to sustain them. That comes especially not allowing that cushion to make us content. Just really understanding every possession, we need to get the best look offensively, and defensively, we have to be locked into the gameplan. We gave them too many easy looks there."

Nobody showcased that better than Al Horford, who was the beneficiary of some lapses on defense as he got going in the third quarter. His second three of the period, which he simply walked into in transition, was a sign of worse things to come. This was, by all accounts, an absolutely ridiculous Joel Embiid performance, perhaps the best he has ever had against the Celtics. But some of the open Horford threes illustrated that there's still more he has to give in order to beat a team like the Celtics. If you crack the door open just a little bit, they're going to run right through it, and Embiid ended up in no man's land on a couple of Horford attempts.

It's not all on him. The Sixers needed to be quicker and more connected on switches with Embiid needing to contain drivers at the rim, and they needed to start switching those actions sooner than they did. Even if they had, Horford's final three in crunch time came with P.J. Tucker overhelping off Horford, an issue that has plagued them against the Celtics all season.

The story of the game, in some respects, was the production gap between the two benches, though after rewatching the game, that seems like an oversimplification. Really, the Celtics got one good bench performance on Saturday night, with Derrick White causing them problems whenever he hit the floor. And Rivers did not leave all-bench groups out there to die against a great opponent. For the second game in a row, James Harden led the backup units when Embiid hit the bench, Rivers opting to avoid all-bench units entirely. The team drowned during those minutes anyway.

Pointing at the ugly plus/minus stats for bench role players is a cheap way to step around the leaders of that group not being good enough. Harden didn't hit a single shot in the second quarter and was part of a trio of bad defenders on the floor at the same time in the early portion of the second. His overhelp on this possession, with Jalen McDaniels in a perfect spot to contest his man, is what led to a wide-open Grant Williams three here:

You can't afford to have repeated issues like this against a team as good as Boston. Nobody is expecting the Sixers to play a perfect game, but winning 16 games in the playoffs requires something much closer to perfect. Boston has a group filled with guys who have gone on deep runs together year after year, and it shows. So before throwing out every member of the bench, take a look at the guys who are going to play the lion's share of the minutes and ask if they did all they could in this game. Boston can win through their depth, while the Sixers likely can't. It's not ideal, but it's the reality of the situation, and their best players have to compete and lock in knowing that's the case.

P.J. Tucker will be the backup center when it matters

This was another strong effort for Tucker in a big matchup, and more of these are adding up as the season wears on. It would be awesome if the Sixers got the same dialed-in Tucker every night, but it is critical that they can get him at all.

More importantly, it is very clear that their backup center options are not going to cut it, and that they will need to play Tucker there when it counts. 

Rivers tried to go to Paul Reed in the first half, forced to sub him out after just three-and-a-half minutes. Small ball helped stabilize things for Philadelphia, which made it a surprise when Rivers went back to Reed to open the fourth quarter.

"Tuck needed a blow, honestly, in the second half," Rivers said after the game. "I was going to go with Tuck [to start the fourth]. I just thought the size and smarts in this game, you need veterans out on the floor."

If you have three backup centers, you really have none, and that seems to be the situation Philadelphia is in right now. Paul Reed's inexperience has made it tough to win his minutes, Montrezl Harrell isn't good enough, and Dewayne Dedmon somehow got hurt during the All-Star break so he isn't even an option to play. One of those guys will play the regular season minutes to save Tucker's legs, but they'll need to sprinkle in more small ball so that it's a lineup they've worked on a lot heading into the postseason. 

(I have always operated under the assumption this was going to happen, which is why I understand anyone who is bothered by the Dedmon signing, which effectively changed nothing.)

The Sixers are not likely to win the bench minutes if they see the Celtics in the playoffs. They are a deeper, better overall team than Philadelphia, and they have less problematic guys in that second unit. Georges Niang may get played off the floor in a lot of these tougher series if the shot isn't falling. There's a silver lining, though...

The Sixers are good enough that Boston has to adjust to them

Boston's preferred starting lineup with Al Horford and Robert Williams III in the frontcourt together does not appear to work against the Sixers. Putting Williams on the floor just gives Philadelphia a player for Embiid to roam off of, which is what he did for a lot of Saturday night.

That's at least kind of a big deal for the Sixers. Because the Celtics are deep and can put some smaller, intriguing lineups on the floor rather than that one, it's certainly not a death blow for Boston. But the smaller Boston gets, the less danger they pose in/around the paint on defense, making it easier for Embiid to gash the Celtics inside the arc.

In the postseason, the Sixers are going to play all of their top guys for longer, and the heartening thing is that they far outclassed Boston when both top units were on the floor on Saturday. Joel Embiid was the best player on the floor by far in a game that included an MVP candidate on the other team. There have been a lot of examples of that phenomenon this season, with Embiid not just beating up on bad teams but rising to the occasion in big moments throughout the season. 

We have seen great five-man units undone by bench hiccups before, but I have more confidence in Harden trying to rectify that problem in the playoffs than I ever did in Ben Simmons. 

Tyrese Maxey has to get back on track

Unpopular opinion — if Tyrese Maxey can't find a groove averaging 33 minutes a night simply because he's coming off of the bench, there is no merit to putting him back in the starting lineup. This isn't a young player being buried by the head coach and looking over his shoulder. I sympathize with his battle to be his best self, and he has verbalized that he has gone through some mental struggles during this season, but I reject the notion that he has been dealt a rough hand or that they have to change all of what has worked because of his inconsistency. 

This is what playing on a team with championship expectations is like. Maxey is going to have to meet the moment and show the mental toughness that people lauded him for when things were going well because right now, we have no idea which guy is going to show up night to night. Every minute Maxey played in the Celtics game was alongside at least one of Embiid or Harden, so the argument about him being left to die on all-bench units doesn't hold up. Maybe Maxey starting gets him going earlier on offense, but his defense has been porous, and starting him likely allows Jayson Tatum to get off to a much better start, changing the complexion of the game.

There's been a bit too much reliance on runners and floaters in recent weeks/months, a habit the Sixers have tried to coax Maxey out of in favor of deeper drives that end at the rim. Spread the blame between Maxey and how they're setting things up — nobody with the team is in his ear and telling him to take a crappy shot like this, but there's also a lot riding on Maxey having to beat matchups in isolation, where his bag is simply not as deep as someone like Harden's. 

Really, the key issue since Maxey returned to the lineup post-injury has been his shooting. Across 24 games in January and February, Maxey made just 45 of 129 three-point attempts, a 34.8 percent mark that is a far cry from the pace he set out of the gate this year. That not only limits his impact off-ball, it makes life a bit harder on Maxey as a self-creator, as teams can sag off him a bit more and force him into a lot of offensive resets when he has the ball in his hands. There's way too much side-to-side dribbling for Maxey when he's going bad.

The Sixers continue to have full faith in Maxey, and on the giant list of responsibilities Embiid has as the leader of the group, he noted Saturday that raising up his teammates is something he can't lose sight of. As the big man told it, they're not going to achieve their goals if they don't get the best version of Maxey.

"After the game, I was talking to him. I was like, 'What can I do to help you?'" Embiid said after Saturday's loss. "I think my main thing for him is just to be aggressive. Obviously, everybody watches film, and everybody knows what he does best, I was just giving him an example of how everybody watches film on me and they probably know what I want to get to. But there's so many ways you can, even if they want to take it away, there's so many ways you can set them up and still be able to get to whatever shots you want, or whatever spot on the floor. But I told him, we're not going anywhere unless he's aggressive and he just plays freely."

The Sixers need to set up in ways to help coax that out of Maxey, but I respect his talent enough to say that he has to help himself, too.

There's more room for optimism than you think

When Joel Embiid said, "Unfortunately, the story of my life" describing his game-tying shot that came too late, that felt like the perfect quote to match the doomer mentality of the fanbase. But it is important to note that Embiid's first words at the podium on Saturday were much more positive.

"We're right there. Obviously, great team, like I said last time we played them, they're extremely deep, anybody can have it going on any given night," Embiid said. "Especially if their best player is not playing well, they have a lot of guys that can pick it up. For us, I think we're right there. Being up 15, I thought we were not all ready to play basketball, and we just got to be better, all of us."

I get that this team has beaten the optimism out of the fanbase and that losing yet another game to the Celtics frustrates the hell out of people. Nothing aside from a deep playoff run is going to change people's minds, and no matter how many times I tell you to chill out, it's probably not going to land. But losing on a last-second shot to the team that looks to be the clear East favorite is not a reason to moan and cry after the game. Embiid is correct — they are right there.

If the Sixers had given up their lead in the third quarter and then packed it in when times got tough, I would get it. What happened instead is what we talked about following the Grizzlies game. The Sixers found a way to battle back, pulling it together with mental toughness and good execution down the stretch. They erased a 10-point lead in the final six minutes, mostly because their best player bodied whoever was in front of him, which included the opponent who used to be the No. 1 Embiid stopper. 

I genuinely think people around here have not adjusted to the reality of the new NBA. Leads are going to swing back and forth, and what's important is that the Sixers have had answers, that they can scratch and claw and give themselves a chance. They are not the best or most talented team in the league. But they are very, very good, and capable of playing with anyone. Since James Harden returned to the lineup on Dec. 5, they are 27-9, boasting the league's best winning percentage, the fifth-best offense, and the 10th-best defense over a period that represents 44 percent of the schedule. 

Their schedule is tough enough that they are essentially going to play playoff tune-ups for 1.5 months straight. It might hurt them in the standings, but it has the chance to mold this team into the best version of themselves by the playoffs. And I would suggest trying to enjoy that opportunity, instead of acting like Chicken Little whenever things don't go the Sixers' way. It's basketball, you might as well try to have a little fun. 

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