May 01, 2018
BOSTON — The toughest thing to watch from an observer's perspective, at least on the first go-around, is a team that can't get anything to drop. That was the Sixers on Monday night at TD Garden, after they turned in a 5-for-26 performance from beyond the arc against the league's best three-point defense. It was ugly, it was frustrating, and it left Philadelphia with almost no chance to shoot their way back into a game that ended in a 117-101 defeat.
But the Sixers have survived nights like these — or at least similar to these — by locking in on the other end. And you only had to ask the big man in charge of steering the ship a simple question about the defense to get the perfect summary of Philadelphia's night on that end.
"It starts on defense. I thought I was shitty, I thought we were all bad tonight. That's not what we are," said Embiid.
That was a common theme when you asked Sixers players about their performance in the locker room after the game, and stems from a variety of factors inside and outside of their control. The focus should always be on the former, and that's where we'll begin tonight.
Perhaps because the Sixers are preparing for a series with Jaylen Brown in it, Ben Simmons took the assignment for the spot in the lineup Brown would normally be in. Marcus Smart is (usually) not going to kill you on the offensive end of the court, and you can see the logic in allowing Simmons to roam off his man a little bit, taking advantage of his length and athleticism to disrupt passing lanes.
The problem, however, is this assignment forced JJ Redick into being the primary defender on Jayson Tatum. On Redick's best day, he's giving up a hefty chunk of size and athleticism to his fellow Blue Devil, and is going to have to rely on sound structure around him to slow down the rookie forward.
It was not Redick's best day on Monday or really anywhere close, and Tatum just abused the matchup all night, to the tune of 28 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field.
There is some logic to this alignment when Boston has their starting group on the floor. You can turn Tatum into a driver rather than a shooter if you close hard at him on the three-point line, and with Aron Baynes manning the center position Embiid is in better position to help and contest shots at the rim.
Credit Tatum for making that calculus look really silly from the opening whistle. Redick did indeed crowd his airspace on the perimeter, but Tatum was too quick for Redick to stay with even when Embiid was able to help at the rim. He did an excellent job of taking advantage of the assignment whether he was dribbling or working away from the ball, and his 28 points on the evening made the matchup look borderline unplayable.
Brett Brown was not in the mood to offer much insight on why they decided to stick with this when things started to go south, showing the sort of caginess you only see from him when in the middle of a playoff series.
"We'll look at that; we'll go back and look at it," said Brown. "For different reasons, we decided to do that, but we'll go back and see how that looked."
Unless you believe Brown is blind, that's something that's likely going to change heading into Game 2. Philadelphia does switch a ton, and the Celtics are going to hunt their weak links in the chain, but as was mentioned in Monday's big preview, Boston is an isolation-heavy team. They will ask their guys to create plenty of their own offense, so you should still be looking to create the best on-ball matchups possible.
The Sixers didn't do that by any stretch of the imagination. There were far too many instances where Marco Belinelli took the Tatum assignment as well, and that ended just about how you would expect.
If you want to dare Tatum to beat you as an iso player, the way to do it is not by handing him guys he can torch this easily.
Around the time period when All-Star selections were made, there was a wave of trash talk directed Boston's way over the notion that Al Horford deserved to start in the midseason game over Embiid. It was a preposterous idea then, and it's still preposterous now.
But that is not a commentary on how good Horford is, or the matchup disadvantages he creates for Philadelphia on defense. He's the exact sort of big man that can diminish the impact of Embiid on the defensive end of the floor, and he did that at times during Game 1.
Along with Rudy Gobert, Embiid is as good as it gets for defensive big men in the NBA. He owns the paint and convinces teams that they should spend their time doing literally anything else except attack him at the summit.
However, while he's capable of guarding guys out to the perimeter, the instinct to help out his teammates at the rim can hurt him at times when he's playing against a big who can stretch the floor. We've seen this in spurts against several teams throughout the season, as has happened with the likes of Indiana's Myles Turner and certainly when dealing with Horford.
This problem reared its head again on Monday night, on plays Embiid acknowledged are a problem after the game. If the choice is between helping on a Shane Larkin drive and a wide-open look from Horford for three, you live with Larkin attacking any day of the week.
It's not the easiest call to make as things are unfolding on the floor, but Embiid signed a massive extension in part because the Sixers trust him to diagnose these situations in real time. He knows this, and called specific attention to the problem following the game.
There's a lot of stuff we game planned that we didn't execute, especially with Al [Horford] popping and him being wide open. That can't happen, he's a pretty good shooter so we got to respect that. There's a lot of adjustments we got to make, just correct them and we're going to be fine.
We just gotta honor the call. My objective is basically to not let anyone get to the rim. But when you play defense on guys like Al Horford and Marcus Morris that are able to stretch you off so much, you just got to respect it and make adjustments. If I have to switch on a guard, I mean I feel like I’m pretty good defensively. I’m going to do my best to stop them. In those situations, I thought we didn’t execute well.
One subplot to watch out of this: the Sixers didn't get standout performances on the perimeter from anybody on Monday, but Boston's late-game lineups with Horford at the five and Marcus Morris at the four may negate Philadelphia's desire to play Belinelli and Redick at the same time.
There are just too many things that can go wrong behind Embiid if he's defending Horford out to the perimeter, and unless the Sixers can make Boston pay by making shots on the other end, they need to take care of business on defense first. That will not involve many lineups that put that duo on the floor, and may necessitate some cameos from the likes of Justin Anderson.
Tough matchup or not, there's also the matter of actually showing up to play. For the first time in a long time, the Sixers did not deliver on that end of the deal defensively, and they were made to suffer for it.
The one thing you can usually say about a Brown-coached team is that they show up prepared to play. There are exceptions to this rule — the Sixers sleepwalked through a few losses to bad teams this season — but in general, they are one of the more consistently locked in groups in the league.
There are plenty of reasons to chalk it up to, but the details like the gameplan and Boston's hot shooting night don't matter if you can't meet the minimum engagement level required to win a playoff game. The Sixers got beat at the rim with some very basic offense, and on sets that involved some of their best defensive players to boot.
This play just about sums up Philadelphia's night for me: Redick and Robert Covington switch on a screen where Terry Rozier never even makes contact, Covington doesn't take the threat of Tatum seriously, and Embiid is standing flat-footed with his attention turned to offensive players (Smart and Baynes) who you'd be thrilled to let shoot from the perimeter all series. The result? An easy bucket for Tatum, who is moving purposefully the entire time.
A lot of the assembled media wanted to attribute the lackadaisical effort to rust after nearly a week off, and there's probably a bit of truth in that idea. But nobody was leaning on that as a crutch in the Sixers' locker room after the game, and to a man, they admitted that they just didn't have what it took on that end of the floor.
"We can't make excuses, [Boston] is playing good basketball," said Covington. "That's not us, they got a lot of easy buckets, a lot of easy threes, transition, that's not us. We're going to get back to ourselves next game."
"It was weird," Dario Saric added after the game. "If they try to penetrate inside, [the gameplan was to] try to make them beat our players one-on-one, we should fan out and don't let them take three points. And a couple times — I slipped one, two times against Rozier, Cov slipped a couple times, other players too — we need to be just on point with what the coaches say for the next game...it's simple, they were just better team than us today."
It's a tale as old as time: players who can't get anything going on the offensive end of the floor will eventually let that impact their defensive ability, try as they might to avoid it. The Sixers benefitted from this a ton against Miami when Hassan Whiteside would just give up when he didn't get touches, but they are usually good at getting past these mental blocks as a unit.
They certainly didn't on Monday, which Covington admitted was the case by his locker after the performance.
"You kind of [saw] it on guy's faces a little bit. We can't have those moments," said Covington. "We know we're not always going to make shots, but we can't lack on one side and then let it drag onto the other side. Tonight is a prime example of that leading to open threes, open transition, missed coverages, miscommunication, a lot of things. We can't have [those] moments."
It would be an unfair characterization to say Philadelphia "quit" on defense because even with their shots not falling, they were still trying to hunt down the Celtics in transition in the fourth quarter. But there was a level of indecisiveness you usually don't see, which allowed plays like this parting of the Red Sea (literally and figuratively) to happen for Rozier.
In fairness, the Sixers had a right to be frustrated with the quality of looks they weren't converting on. Boston did a good job of suffocating them throughout the evening, but there were more than enough open shots to work with. Ersan Ilyasova had a particularly brutal night in this regard, and when you see teammates flubbing these opportunities a mental shutdown is hard to stave off forever.
This is a group that has earned the benefit of the doubt to a certain extent. They closed the year and began the playoffs on one of the great runs of this NBA season, and losing Game 1 on the road is far from a backbreaker. There is almost no doubt that they will come back and play better on both ends of the floor, and they will switch things up that will make their lives easier.
But I cautioned readers against taking this Celtics team lightly on Monday morning and urge the same level of concern I did then in the aftermath of Game 1. Without Jaylen Brown to assist in the effort — to say nothing of the notable absences Boston has been dealing with for a while — the Celtics came out and punched Philadelphia in the mouth.
We will see just how strong the team's chin is in Game 2.
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