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January 21, 2021

What can we learn about Sixers in follow-up meeting with Celtics?

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Joel_Embiid_Shake_Milton_Hornets_Sixers_Frese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and guard Shake Milton.

Regular season wins over rivals can usually be savored for a while in the NBA, with matchups against teams like the Celtics spread throughout the season for the Sixers. Among the many changes the league has made to deal with COVID is the adoption of the two-game miniseries in 2021, allowing opponents to respond and adjust immediately after taking an L.

With teams having the chance to prep for one opponent exclusively, it's the closest we have ever come to a playoff-like scenario in the NBA. If you're asking me, it's one of the few positive developments of these times, a functional stress test of the players and coaches, and they're especially important for a team like Philly that is trying to put together an identity on the fly this year. 

They have performed well in these games so far this year, but Boston is by far the toughest opponent they've drawn in a series yet, with Miami undermanned and Charlotte outgunned when they played their first two sets. Even without the services of Jayson Tatum, the Celtics pushed the Sixers hard on Wednesday night and forced them to execute late into the fourth quarter to pick up their latest W.

Using the first matchup as our guide, let's take a look at what we might expect to matter in Friday's game vs. Boston.

How Embiid responds to coverage changes

There was no mistaking how Doc Rivers felt about the performance of his franchise center on Wednesday night. Forty-two points and only one turnover while dealing with constant pressure in the post? The stuff dreams are made of.

"I loved how he played tonight because he kind of let it come to him with 40 [points]. That's hard to do," Rivers said. "Every time they double-teamed, he made the pass. Every time they didn't, he attacked. I don't know. I thought early on they wanted to double team, we got those two threes off his passes, they got out of it, he started scoring, they started double-teaming again, we got another 3, I thought that kind of balance from your team is good. And I love that he's trusting that."

It was yet another dominant performance that adds to Embiid's early case for MVP, which his coach and teammates were happy to make for him following the game's conclusion. For the big fella, playing this Boston team with the group he has around him has to feel freeing — Al Horford made his life miserable for years (as an opponent and a teammate), and even last season with his nemesis out of the way, the Celtics were able to successfully double Embiid in the playoffs with no fear of being punished on the weakside.

One game does not mean Boston's success defending him has suddenly gone up in smoke, even if Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson are not exactly ideal matchups against Embiid in single-coverage. The Celtics have had success in the past by mixing up where doubles are coming from, keeping him guessing and a step behind the defense from possession-to-possession.

With Embiid passing like he is right now, it's going to be a little more difficult to stop him with the personnel Boston has available. Embiid only picked up two assists on the night, but he's dropping passes right into the shooting pockets of his teammates, even when it requires him mailing a difficult cross-court feed over the defense:

Subtle changes to his game continue to shine. When he's attacking the basket, Embiid can still be a somewhat loose dribbler, but his touches in the post are controlled and thoughtful. Late attempts from help defenders are less effective because Embiid is effectively sealing off his primary defender without losing his grip on the ball or the rest of the floor, and early attempts are avoided altogether because Embiid is waiting for the right time to start dribbling instead of immediately putting the ball on the floor. 

You see both sides of that coin here, with Embiid waiting for Marcus Smart to clear out of his immediate space and then tucking the ball and firing when Payton Pritchard tries to cheat down and reach:

Embiid burned them in a game where a lot of their doubles came in his line of sight, so I would expect the Celtics to send more weakside doubles at Embiid whenever possible on Friday.

Changes in Philadelphia's style of play may allow them to skirt around that issue altogether. Doc Rivers continued to feed Embiid a steady diet of touches out of "delay" looks where Embiid initiates the offense himself from the center of the floor, and though handling the ball has been somewhat of a rollercoaster in the past, Embiid has shown improvement protecting the basketball while self-creating. Those looks, Embiid says, are a necessary changeup to throw at teams who want to throw multiple bodies at him in the post.

"Every year they keep doing the same things, and it gets harder if I got to catch the ball on the block every single time. That's an easy place to double," Embiid said. "Playing out of delay actions, that’s good for me because, how are you going to double that? It’s hard to double from the middle of the floor, and if you double we got way too many good shooters for me to kick it out and make the shot."

"There's a lot of freedom. I get to be myself in that offense, it’s not just about, okay, let's dump it down to Jo and let him figure it out, let's see what he can get us. I can attack the game, especially if I know that they’re doubling or triple-teaming me, I can attack them in a different style, and I'm just taking advantage of it."

It's hard to say enough about what this guy is doing right now, and seeing him rise to the challenge whenever the Sixers have needed it has been a treat to watch.

Impact of (potential) Seth Curry return on the rotation

The Sixers have been a bit cagey about the return of their lights out shooter. Early in the week, there was internal optimism Curry would be available at some point this week, but no one would say when, what his availability would be like, or even nail down that he would definitely be available. And that's fair enough — they're new to navigating the health and safety protocol like everyone else. But Curry's return creates a new set of problems for Rivers, and for once they're good problems. 

The first question is whether he throws Curry immediately back into the starting and closing lineup, and if I were guessing based on Rivers' track record, I would assume that's the case unless there are imposed restrictions on his minutes. There is nobody who can draw attention with his shot quite like Curry, and the sooner the head coach can get his top group in sync, the better.

Philadelphia currently has three bench players who are more or less nailed on in the rotation: Dwight Howard, Shake Milton, and Tyrese Maxey. The rookie has dipped in effectiveness a bit playing with the starters over the last couple of games and I think moving back to a bench role will allow his offensive skill set to shine a bit more. Maxey and Milton are a good combo together, with Maxey supplying a burst of speed and decisiveness that counters Milton's smoother, more methodical game quite nicely.

Rivers is ultimately going to have to see what he needs on a given night after those two. Matisse Thybulle continues to look pretty lost on offense this season, but he is an important defensive chess piece against the Celtics. Furkan Korkmaz has not shot the ball well this season, though he has only appeared in four games and Rivers seems to consider him an integral piece. Then there's Isaiah Joe, who impressed in an increased role with Philly down bodies, and Mike Scott, who offers size the rest of the group doesn't, even if he doesn't use it too much.

There has been a bit more lineup staggering for Philadelphia recently, with Rivers spending less time in all-bench looks than we saw at the start of the year. I'm curious to see if that holds with a close-to-full lineup available. Tobias Harris (who played nearly 40 minutes on Wednesday) and Ben Simmons have been the guys bridging the lineup gap, which suggests to me that this might disappear as soon as Scott is healthy and can eat some minutes at power forward.

Defensive options vs. two-wing teams

Defense was one of the reasons so many people were out on a Ben Simmons for James Harden swap before the Nets completed that deal last week. Without Simmons, how would the Sixers deal with the guys like Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and you get the picture. Rarely did the conversation ever think about who the defender of a second good perimeter player would be even with Simmons, and the Sixers may be presented with that test Friday.

Like Curry, Jayson Tatum is out of the health and safety protocol for Boston, and though his availability is still in some doubt heading into the game, the Sixers need to be prepared for a Celtics team with two big, tough wings (and Kemba Walker in a limited role to boot). That wasn't especially concerning last year, with the Sixers able to use the Ben Simmons/Josh Richardson combo and then lean on Matisse Thybulle for backup responsibilities. It's a bigger deal this year, with Danny Green looking a bit long in the tooth.

Doc Rivers has come under some criticism (including from this writer) when he has left Simmons on a different matchup in order to stick with his initial gameplan for an opponent on a given night. Bradley Beal's 60 points are the most noteworthy example, but we saw this play out some on Wednesday, with Simmons mostly guarding Jaylen Brown even with other guys in the midst of hot scoring runs.

In the brief windows of time where Simmons was asked to check somebody else, it didn't exactly go swimmingly for Philadelphia. This is a somewhat scattered play after an offensive rebound, but you can see how Green's recovery speed leaves him at a disadvantage defending a hyper athlete like Brown:

There's no time or room to hesitate against Brown this season, and for all of Simmons' issues this year, he has continued to keep the mind and motor running high on defense. That helps them avoid breakdowns of this sort.

Tobias Harris didn't do a poor job of covering him in limited reps on Wednesday, and in the past, conceding lightly guarded runners to Brown is a perfectly defensible decision strategically. But these are plays/shots that Brown is making frequently this season, and Simmons' ability to beat a guy to a spot and prevent the attempt from happening at all shouldn't be discounted:

You can avoid heavy doses of this when playing a Tatum-less Celtics team, but with Simmons presumably taking the Tatum assignment if he's back Friday, the Sixers don't have a good answer for Brown. It also opens the door for a lot more matchup hunting on Boston's end, something they love to do and have killed Philly with in the past. I would not be surprised to see them test Curry early and often (again, if he plays) by trying to force switches where one of Brown or Tatum creates a mismatch.

Philadelphia's schematic changes will be tested here, which is good or bad depending on how you look at it. Embiid playing higher up in pick-and-rolls has prevented teams from going on the pull-up barrages that used to kill them in the past, but that style requires better attention to detail from all the players behind and around the big man, tagging rollers and rotating when necessary. Lineups featuring Brown-Tatum-Walker-Smart will test the merit of every closeout and attempt at help defense, and even if Philly plays it perfectly, Tatum can bail the C's out of bad possessions with tough shotmaking.

(Something to keep in mind, despite my musings above: Simmons did not do a whole lot to bother Brown when he did shoot the ball on Wednesday, with Brown shooting 5/7 from the field while covered by Simmons on a majority of possessions. That's a reflection of Brown's improved scoring ability more than Simmons' defense, in my opinion.)

Impact of Marcus Smart's complaining

Come on, you thought I was going to write a next-day article and not get into the war of words between Smart and Embiid?

Here's what Smart had to say about the discrepancy in free throws for the two teams:

It is tough. Especially when we've got our hands up a lot of the times, and he flails and gets the call, and then down on the other end we've got our guys attacking the rim, getting a lot of contact, and we're just not getting the whistle. It's tough to play like that. It's tough. 

If the roles were reversed, I'd do it every time. I mean, I'd be on too if every time I threw my arms up or every time I got touched, I'm going to the free-throw line. I mean, it's kind of hard not to get into a rhythm that way when you shoot 21 free throws alone and they allow you to hack on the other end.

Embiid, never a shy guy in front of a microphone, clapped back when given a chance on Wednesday night:

Marcus Smart just told me that I flail a lot? Come on. I'm sure he knows himself and he knows his game too, he does a lot of that. And I don't think I do. I mean, if you watch basketball and if you're a student of the game and if you actually pay attention during the game, we all see. Every single foul, I get fouled. They probably don't call all of them, like the last one. There was three minutes left, I went up and that was a foul and they knew it, but they didn’t call it, so there's a lot that they don't call, and there's a lot that they call because you have to. 

The game is physical, other teams tend to try to be extra physical against me. And I guess I'm just smarter than everybody else, I just take advantage of it. I just take advantage of how they’re guarding me. You can call that, I don't know basketball IQ, like if you're going to put your hand up there, I’m gonna take advantage of it and I'm gonna get to the free-throw line, because I know that I'm a great free throw shooter and that's a better chance for me to help the team win in those situations.

Officials are supposed to call the game the same way regardless and do so "objectively," but they are human beings like anyone else. It wouldn't be a shock to see Smart draw a fine for this, and while it's not always a guarantee that you're going to get the benefit of the whistles after the league office punishes you, it's a natural reaction for an official to second-guess whether all those foul calls actually were legitimate fouls.

It could end up being a valuable bit of gamesmanship from Smart. Or it could mean nothing, with Embiid burning up the Celtics once again on Friday. I'm excited to find out which way it breaks.

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