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January 20, 2021

Instant observations: Joel Embiid continues to build MVP case with 42 points vs. Celtics

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Behind another 42 points from MVP candidate Joel Embiid, the Sixers won a tight 117-109 game over the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. 

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• Joel Embiid is going to eat the Celtics for lunch this season if they don't come up with reinforcements in the middle at some point. He's too big and too skilled for the guys they have at center, and Boston had an absolute whale of a time trying to guard him with the improved spacing around the big fella this season.

Embiid put up 22 points in the first half alone, playing the same disciplined brand of basketball that has powered his MVP-level start. He seemed to know exactly how Boston would react to each individual action of his, using up fakes, footwork and certainly a little bit of size to muscle his way into spots where they were all but forced to foul him. His only turnover in the first 24 minutes was just a bad pass, rather than the sort of overdribbling, tunnel-vision possession that often doomed him against Boston in the past.

His dominance continued in the second half, with Embiid picking the Celtics apart from the low block. When they sent early doubles, he got the ball out of there quickly, leading to some great looks for his shooters on the weakside. Boston tried to hang in there with single coverage probably more than Brad Stevens actually wanted to, and Embiid absolutely tortured the former Cavs big throughout the evening. Every time it seemed like the Sixers were running out of answers, Embiid seemed to come up with a new one. 

When it was time to kill off this game in the final quarter, Embiid didn't just stand on the block and post up, with the Sixers allowing him to effectively run point in the middle of the floor so he could initiate the offense himself, as he did in his 45-point outing against Miami. The Celtics were so concerned about what to do with Embiid in the post that they just abandoned other players at times on Wednesday, leading to some wide-open looks for his teammates down the stretch.

We might be seeing a preview of what it's going to look like in the Eastern Conference playoffs, health permitting. With a couple of notable exceptions, Embiid is going to have his way with the big men of a lot of the top contenders in the conference, including the Nets, who just traded one of their best bigs as part of the trade for James Harden. There may be issues with this roster, but Embiid is a walking nightmare for a lot of their future playoff foes.

• I'll be honest, I never thought we'd see Shake Milton with this amount of confidence at the NBA level. He had a nice combination of skills coming out of SMU, but he was sort of an up-and-down player in limited run before this year, and even as he put up big numbers in the G-League, we rarely saw him play with the free-flowing confidence a guard needs to have coming off of the bench.

That's no longer a problem, and Milton has not backed down from any matchup put in front of him. Even when tasked with beating Marcus Smart, one of the most tenacious defenders in the league, Milton showed no desire to back down and continued getting to his spots out of the pick-and-roll. 

We're beginning to see some more advanced reads from Milton out of that staple set he runs with Dwight Howard. Milton was not rewarded with assists on all of them, but he made several skip passes across traffic to find a shooter in the weakside corner, sending the Celtics into scramble mode and earning Philly a couple of really nice looks. If he can combine that sort of passing/playmaking with the scoring we've all seen he's capable of, he is going to have an absolute monster impact on this team.

And Milton's defensive improvement would be the biggest story of his season if not for his scoring barrages, because he has gone from being a massive negative to at least an average defender, often times better than that. There were at least a few plays where well-timed help from Milton off a corner shooter disrupted a Celtics possession, a great sign this early in the year under a new coaching staff.

• I wasn't terribly enamored with Matisse Thybulle on offense in this game, but I thought he was better than whatever his matchup stats will end up saying. Kemba Walker was cooking in the first half, but it wasn't because of anything Thybulle was doing wrong. If anything, there were possessions where Walker could not even get the ball or get downhill because Thybulle was so effective at navigating traffic and denying him his spot before he could get there.

Steals numbers don't always match defensive output on a given night (and often times they're the exact opposite, a sign of a guy who is gambling too much) but I thought Thybulle's four steals were a fair representation of a solid evening.

• We'll get to some of the issues I thought he had below, but I can't fault Simmons for the approach he took to this game. For most of the evening, he played the aggressor, rewarded with free-throw attempts and second-chance opportunities that he created by himself. 

More importantly, Simmons made some absolutely critical defensive plays down the stretch, and they probably do not close this one out without him. After a bad Embiid possession in the post, it was Simmons who tore back down the floor with a little more than two minutes to go to break up the fast break and poke the ball out of bounds, allowing Philly to reset their defense. 

A minute or so later, it was Simmons who came up with a steal by making a timely swipe on Embiid's man in the post, a sequence that allowed the Sixers to pad their lead on the ensuing possession. On the very next possession, he tracked Kemba Walker flying around a screen with the ball in his hands and still managed to force an absolutely wild shot that hit nothing but backboard, and he would eventually grab the defensive rebound that iced the game.

The box score is not going to please many people, but he made winning plays when it mattered, and he certainly deserves credit for that.

• After a hot start, Tobias Harris faded from the game until the beginning of the fourth quarter, when the Sixers desperately needed someone to step up with Simmons in foul trouble. He took it upon himself as one of their vet leaders, scoring or assisting on three buckets in quick succession to push Philadelphia into the lead with a group of bench players around him. 

With Embiid carrying the load for Philly, all Harris has to do is put together bursts like these during the dead periods. That should be enough to win the day.

The Bad

• Bad defense or just better offense from Boston? There was probably a little bit of both on Wednesday night. The Celtics, as they always seem to do against Philadelphia, made some incredibly tough shots from all over the floor. Marcus Smart seems to really savor these games against a division rival, especially when he can toss a rainbow floater over Embiid's outstretched arm to torture Sixers fans.

I didn't think Philly played especially well on the defensive end themselves, though, and it seemed like they were a step behind their opponent most of the night, forced to play reactive defense rather than imposing their will on the game. Hot shooting from the Celtics eventually forced the Sixers to make a few matchup adjustments I think they would have preferred to avoid, and I'd like to see this one again before I weigh in on which side deserves more credit/blame.

• Prior to Wednesday night's game, Doc Rivers noted that he would like to get Ben Simmons the ball in the post more, perhaps even posting on both sides of the basket with Simmons and Embiid. It's not a strategy I particularly want to see them revisit, but so be it if that's what they roll with.

Here's the problem — Simmons is making almost no attempt to score in the post when he gets the ball there. The Celtics were throwing miniature guards at Simmons on the low block, and he barely explored the opportunity to score before kicking the ball out and resetting the offense. If we are at the point where he's not interested in attacking Kemba Walker and Jeff Teague on the block, there's basically no point in ever giving him the ball down there.

To Simmons' credit, he was intent on getting to the free-throw line and seeking out contact on Wednesday, getting to the line fairly often against a team that has often rendered him completely useless. Unfortunately, that all unraveled in the second half, and his physical approach earned him his fifth foul before the third quarter had even ended. He has struggled to find the middle ground between playing aggressive and playing reckless, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he has not developed the foul-drawing skills to actually benefit from playing that way.

I can't criticize the guy for trying to make use of his frame the way everyone has asked him to for years, but it really is staggering that the options are basically "go downhill or not at all" four years into his career. Jaylen Brown had an up-and-down night shooting the ball across from Simmons, but comparing their growth over the last few years is not flattering to Simmons on offense.

• Even if Matisse Thybulle's offensive skills come around eventually, he still has a long way to go strictly as a decisionmaker. He's all scattered energy all of the time. There was a sequence in the second quarter where he was one-on-three on a fast break and decided to pull up for a contested three instead of slowing down, and within moments he cut directly into the path Ben Simmons was trying to drive into, junking up the possession.

With Seth Curry almost back in the lineup, there's going to be serious competition for minutes at the back of the rotation soon. The three-man group of Howard-Maxey-Milton is nailed on, and Doc Rivers has constantly talked up Furkan Korkmaz, who made his return from injury on Wednesday night. Combine that with Isaiah Joe giving them good minutes off of the bench, and Thybulle should be hearing footsteps behind him. 

• Speaking of Maxey, I don't love him as the fifth guy in the starting lineup the Sixers had out there against Boston. Rivers wanting to keep Shake Milton in the same role as their offensive spark off the bench is understandable, but if he wanted to go that route, I think you're almost better off putting a pure shooter alongside Embiid/Harris/Green/Simmons.

There were a lot of post possessions with Maxey on the strong side feeding Embiid in the post, and though he did fine as the guy getting him the ball (that has been an issue at times this season), he wasn't especially useful when the ball came back his way. At the moment, his trigger from three is not quite quick enough, and the Celtics did an effective job of disrupting him on his way to the basket

• Dwight Howard continues to make an impact as an offensive rebounder (and subsequent foul drawer), but his defensive instincts have been surprisingly bad over the last couple of weeks. Boston absolutely carved the Sixers up when Howard was in the game on Friday night, and while some of that can be attributed to poor perimeter defense compromising his positioning, Howard dealt with the aftermath about as poorly as possible.

The Ugly

• There have been quite a few games already played this season where it just felt wrong for it to take place in an empty gym. The contrast between a normal Sixers-Celtics game and this Sixers-Celtics game, though, made me feel like I was going crazy. Rivalry games do not feel the same without a lot of juice from the people in the stands.

• It has increasingly become the norm in the NBA, but I refuse to accept guys just not even attempting a shot at the end of a quarter to protect their field goal percentages. Boston's Semi Ojeleye caught the ball with nearly two seconds left in the first quarter and room to dribble, and he turned sideways with the ball and ran out the clock instead of trying to do something positive for his team. It's ridiculous that we've gotten to this point.

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