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December 21, 2021

Instant observations: Joel Embiid carries Sixers down stretch for win vs. Celtics

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Joel-Embiid-Sixers-Celtics_122021_usat David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid drives the ball against Boston Celtics center Enes Freedom.

Joel Embiid put the Sixers on his back during a devastating fourth-quarter run, pushing the Sixers to a 108-103 victory in Boston.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Say this about the Sixers after last week's brutal run of games — they finally avoided getting off to a terrible start. In spite of a fire alarm delaying the beginning of the game, Philadelphia managed to stay loose and get out to an early lead against the Celtics, a novelty for this group recently.

Pace was Philadelphia's friend early in this game, which was a reflection of their defensive effort as much as anything else. Though Joel Embiid ended up in early foul trouble and Matisse Thybulle picked up a cheapie on a reach against Jayson Tatum, the group managed to hold it together and buckle down on that end collectively, flying around in rotations to prevent clean looks for Boston. And Thybulle, in spite of that early foul, made at least a couple of standout plays by himself, blocking or altering shots from driving Celtics in the first quarter.

It was Tobias Harris who sparked the Sixers with a bit of early offense, with the Sixers making a concerted effort to get him the ball after stops. They did get a little more creative with his overall usage — Harris' first attempt (and make) of the game was an off-movement three to open the scoring for Philadelphia, a welcome sight for a team that has been short on weakside action for a lot of this year.

But make no mistake, this was a three-man carry for most of the first half — Harris, Joel Embiid, and Seth Curry either scored or assisted all of the team's 28 first-quarter points, starring in their roles to get the Sixers rolling early. Eventually, the heavy lifting done by those three was more sad than impressive, with the Embiid-Harris-Curry trio scoring 60 of Philadelphia's first 65 points, an absolutely insane number. 

• As a group, the Sixers did a much better job of punishing the Celtics for playing Enes Kanter Freedom than they have on most occasions where they've played the Turkish big. Rather than just encouraging Embiid to sledgehammer him in the post over and over again, the Sixers made a pointed effort to make him defend in space, exploiting his complete lack of foot speed and deep drop coverage.

Curry was the guy who most obviously benefitted from Freedom's presence on the floor, using a constant drumbeat of Embiid screens to walk into pull-up jumpers with nobody there to contest. As we've seen throughout the season, he is basically automatic when you concede midrange jumpers to him, and he took advantage of Freedom's absence past the free-throw line as he lit up the scoreboard in the first half.

You watch games like this and wonder how/why Curry can fade from the gameplan for long stretches of games. Even if Curry is having an off night, he commands a ton of respect as a shooter, dragging defenders with him wherever he goes and gets to on the floor. With Curry's multi-faceted skills, they have multiple outs on any play where he is a featured player, so you'd think it'd be easy enough to just dial up more plays for one of their top weapons.

• It was a bit more up and down for Embiid in the Kanter exploitation department, as the big fella went toe-to-toe with Freedom a few times on the block as one might expect, ultimately coming out relatively even in those battles. But whenever Freedom had to stay in front of Embiid and defend him off-the-dribble or on the roll, it was a crisis for the Celtics. And with the Celtics tilting help toward Embiid for a lot of the night, Embiid showed off the increased passing creativity that he's worked on all year, hitting Thybulle on a pair of early back cuts with nobody around the hoop for Boston.

(I think Embiid's turnover numbers would look less ugly if the Sixers' role players had simply cashed in more of the open looks that were created for them when pressure was sent in Embiid's direction. Danny Green missed a particularly huge three that Embiid gift-wrapped him with around 2:30 to play in the fourth quarter, a running theme throughout the night.)

Embiid had his struggles early in the second half, coughing the ball up and struggling against relentless Celtics double teams at times. But despite having to play a ton of minutes after coming into the day labeled questionable, Embiid saved just enough in the tank to give the Sixers what they needed in crunch time, blowing by Freedom on one end while locking down the paint on the other. Embiid's defensive lift in this one was pretty encouraging, all things considered, with the big guy able to get to some shots around the basket that frankly looked out of reach, soaring through the air to block Boston attempts at the hoop.

The scoring barrage the big man went on to end this game was the sort of shotmaking display we seemed to get over and over again last season, when nobody in the league could figure out exactly how to stop this guy. He has been dinged for tunnel vision at times this season, sometimes rightfully so, but he was prepared to fall on his own sword if they lost this one.

(A quick note here: look at how easy it is for him when he has good spacing. All of those guys on the floor with him are at least respectable shooters, and he got an easy one-on-one matchup as a result of a simple lineup choice and a good entry pass. This stuff isn't too hard.)

To put the cherry on top, Embiid was the guy who intercepted Boston's last-ditch heave to tie the game in the closing seconds, and he was able to manage his 40th and 41st points at the line on the ensuing trip. A nice reward for his relentless effort.

Thanks to the big dude, the Sixers pulled one out of the fire, and they got a game they badly needed to get right. That's what your best player needs to do. 

• Turns out, the Sixers look a lot more competent when Tobias Harris plays well on offense. Shocking, I know, but when one of your big-money guys carries himself like one of the best players on the team, the other absences in the lineup and issues with the team suddenly don't seem so glaring. When Harris was playing decisively early in this game, taking catch-and-shoot jumpers and pushing the ball in transition, that was when the Sixers looked their best.

Frustration with Harris, though, does not appear limited to the fans in the stands and watching at home. There are moments every night where Doc Rivers or Sixers teammates are imploring Harris to play quicker, often after possessions where he's a primary culprit for a plodding play or a shot clock violation, with eye rolls and aggressive clapping accompanying the message. As games wear on, Harris falls back into the mode of trying to score on mid-post touches rather than straight-line drives and quick threes, and it ends up harming Philadelphia's offense.

If they can channel the version of Harris they got for about the first 2.5 quarters of this game, they will be off to the races. Easier said than done.

• Matisse Thybulle played with foul trouble for most of the game on Monday night, but he was still able to play an impactful brand of defense even as he walked that dangerous line against Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two very different and dangerous wing scorers for Boston. He was a bit hard done on the sixth foul call that Rivers challenged, but no complaints from me about his night regardless. 

The Bad

• Offense was in short supply for anybody outside of the Embiid/Curry/Harris trio, if the numbers mentioned further up the article didn't drive that point home enough already. When the starters were all on the floor, it wasn't a huge deal to have scoring limited to the three top guys on the roster, but the Sixers' depleted bench struggled to leave an imprint on this game.

The big disappointment of that group has to be Isaiah Joe, who has slightly higher expectations than the rest of the second unit that suited up in Boston. There were visions of Joe being a secondary creator and off-ball threat for the Sixers when he tore it up in camp and preseason, but those dreams have faded some if you look at what he has produced in limited action this year. We're still looking for definitive proof that his shooting touch will translate to this level, and though he competes hard on defense, he continues to get moved off of his spot by bigger offensive players.

(Mind you, I still think he has deserved more chances to play this year, given Furkan Korkmaz's implosion after a hot start. But everyone should be realistic about who Joe has been and probably will be in a regular role, at least in the immediate future.)

It's difficult for me to sit here and say Rivers could have done much different with the available guys on the roster, at least when it comes to their offensive futility. Paul Reed isn't the player you turn to in order to juice up your offense, and he was the only other guy available to play who didn't get in the rotation against the Celtics. Sometimes, you just don't have enough guys, and that is arguably the theme of Philadelphia's season to date.


MORE: The Sixers' current state shows why Ben Simmons trade hasn't been made yet


Where I do think you can hold Rivers accountable is failure to recognize what the Celtics were going to do and adjust your lineups accordingly. Boston was going to go small to open the fourth, and Rivers rolled out Charles Bassey at the five instead of trying somebody like Reed, who isn't as dependent on success in drop coverage to stay on the floor. Boston punished the one-style Sixers, forcing Embiid to come back in the game before getting much of a break.

• Danny Green picked an absolutely terrible time to have a bad night as a shooter, and his ugly games are just so painful to watch. Thankfully for the Sixers, he hit the one big momentum three they needed to get a lead with under two minutes to play, and his defense was pretty damn good most of the night, so it's a wash.

On second thought, I have to say I'm not sure what the hell Green was doing after he forced the turnover in the final 15 seconds, but it nearly cost the Sixers the game and he should never do something like it again.

• Not the most spectacular Sixers debut for Myles Powell, though he could be forgiven for looking a little out of sorts in the circumstances. You're asking a guy to join a new team whose roster is completely out of sorts and play close to a lone ballhandler role at times in his debut.

That said, the decision-making wasn't great at either end, with Powell forcing up some tough shots and making iffy decisions on the defensive end. The good news is the Sixers' schedule is about to lighten up, so he should get practice reps and time to settle in.

The Ugly

• NBA officiating has just been so bad for a lot of this year. This game featured some of the worst tendencies you'd like to avoid just from a watchability perspective — late whistles after it became clear shots were missed, technical fouls that were given out when guys had reasonable complaints about bad calls, and inconsistency all over the place. 

• A Sixers-Celtics game getting delayed in Boston because a burst pipe caused a fire alarm sounds like some sort of insane Red Auerbach competitive tactic the Celtics would have tried back in the 1950s and 60s. Something stupid always happens in these games.


Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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