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May 04, 2018

Sixers' stars crumble in unacceptable Game 2 loss to Boston Celtics

BOSTON — You can come out and credit the Boston Celtics for their role in a 108-103 Sixers loss at TD Garden, and the home team would absolutely deserve their share of accolades. They took a haymaker from Philadelphia early in Game 2, watching the Sixers run out to a 20+ point lead only to rally behind a raucous home crowd and swallow up all the momentum by halftime. The work Brad Stevens has done all year and is doing in this series is pretty remarkable, all things considered.

But no, Thursday's Game 2 was a story of collective failure and failure among the people who are Philadelphia's most important figures. There was Ben Simmons, invisible for most of the game, Joel Embiid, wildly ineffective on offense and several steps behind on defense, and Brett Brown, incapable of pushing the right buttons at pretty much any point throughout the night.

Those three men are probably the three biggest reasons the Sixers are where they are right now, winners of 52 games and a playoff series already. So when the Sixers barf up a major advantage, fold like a cheap tent, and head home down 2-0 and with all the energy tilting in Boston's direction, of course they deserve to get an earful. This loss rests squarely on their shoulders.

If the Sixers are judging themselves by a different set of expectations now that they have "arrived" sooner than expected, they are subject to the pressure that comes with it. And on Thursday night at TD Garden, they buckled under them, showing the signs of youth that have been repressed for much of this playoff run.

Ben Simmons, no show

There have been uneventful games for Simmons, there have been bad games for the rookie, but none of them have been quite like this. He was the exact player his critics have accused him of being at his worst, a passenger to Philadelphia's success and an actively harmful participant at his worst.

The box score basically says it all. He came up with just one point, five rebounds, and seven assists on 0/4 shooting, and even that feels like it's overselling the imprint he left on the game. The assists were padded by some low degree of difficulty makes from his shooters, and some of his only attacking moments in the game came when they were too little, too late. He was never really in the game, and it showed.

After the game, Simmons outright admitted that he didn't have what it took mentally to get the job done, telling the assembled media he believed his own shortcomings hurt him more than Boston's defense did.

"I think it was mainly what I did to myself," said Simmons. "I think mentally, I was thinking too much, overthinking the plays. I wasn't just out there playing the way I play, which is free. Obviously, they have a gameplan and I know what their gameplan is, and I got to play my game. I'm going to have bad games, it happens ... I think it was self-inflicted from myself, personally, from my own game. Team-wise, I think mentally we made too many errors when we had that lead and we need to stay on it.”

Boston's Terry Rozier — who is outplaying a bigger name at point guard for the second straight series, by the way — confirmed Simmons' hypothesis, in a way. Rozier says Boston's strategy isn't much more than trying to cut Simmons off from his outlets, turning him into something they believe he is not.

"We know he's looking to pass first, he's got a lot of great shooters around him, he got the right people around him. So we just try to limit that and take that away, take the shooters away and make him score the ball," said Rozier. "Not saying that he can't score, but he wants to pass, and [if] we take that away, I feel like we feel pretty good about it."

But if the offensive performance was notable, I thought it was his effort on the defensive end of the floor that was worse at times. For the second straight game, Simmons didn't offer a whole hell of a lot, and continued to look like the guy at LSU who people doubted would impact the game there at the pro level.

While Robert Covington flew around the court like a madman, Simmons allowed his offensive ineffectiveness to bleed into his intensity on D. After Philadelphia got a halftime break to clean their wounds, Simmons came right back out to open the second half and fell asleep on Rozier's movement, ultimately handing him an open three that he missed.

On the very next possession, Simmons was in great position to capitalize on a long rebound off a Covington missed three, and just sort of meandered through the paint as Covington himself jostled for the loose ball. And though Simmons ended up getting back down the court in transition, it was Covington who took off screaming to contest Marcus Smart's corner attempt on the ensuing Boston possession. 

Attempts to explain this away by pointing to Horford's arm grab don't amuse me — drag his ass with you and force somebody to call a foul if that's the case.

He was simply not engaged in this game and deserves every bit of criticism that will come his way for the performance. That there were questions about whether he should return to the lineup in the game's closing minutes should say it all, and we'll discuss that decision in more detail later today.

It's just one game, and this is still a learning process for the kid. But for Philadelphia to have any chance to recover and win this series, Simmons has to be a hell of a lot better than this.

Joel Embiid, out of sorts

The case for Embiid as one of the game's best players tends to rest on his ability to impact the game at both ends. When his shot isn't dropping, he's an elite defensive player. When his defense slips a bit, he can usually will himself to the free-throw line and keep Philadelphia in it during their worst offensive stretches.

Outside of collecting offensive rebounds off his own misses in the first half, Embiid was not offering a whole lot on either end of the floor against Boston. Foul trouble limited him at the worst possible time in the second half, but that was only part of the story.

As they did in smaller bursts during Game 1, the Celtics preyed on Philadelphia's big men having to contest players all the way out to the three-point line. This is particularly problematic for Embiid, who is more than capable of staying in front of guys on the perimeter but who is at his best when he is shutting down the game at the rim, allowing Philadelphia's other four players to stay home on their matchups.

But by using Horford as a screener near the perimeter and forcing Embiid to flash out and cover when he pops, the Celtics are putting a ton of stress on Philadelphia's defense. He's either having to close onto Horford — often times overzealously — or Embiid is switched onto a guard whose shooting he still has to respect. It creates the same openings regardless of circumstance.

The third play is the most egregious example of the problem; Embiid is in absolute no man's land after taking a few half-hearted steps toward Rozier, and once Jayson Tatum beat Robert Covington it was all over from there.

Moving on to the foul trouble, Embiid picked up his fifth of the game with 4:54 remaining in the fourth, and it's worth acknowledging it was a bit of a soft call. But once again it was Horford's perimeter threat that caused it in the first place, with an overzealous Embiid closeout allowing Boston's big man to get by him off-the-dribble. Once Embiid leaned toward him and Horford started going down, the whistle was always going to follow.

It's what happened from there that was a bigger issue. Boston sensed an opportunity to attack Embiid at the rim, and the center rewarded them by playing like a man aware he was close to being disqualified. Rozier picked up a layup with a little under three minutes to play and no Embiid contest to speak of, and on the game's definitive possession, Embiid offered little resistance as Horford went past him for the clinching points.

That's horrendous defense from Embiid even considering the foul trouble.

The Celtics run pretty unimaginative offense a lot of the time, which was a big reason they dug themselves such a huge hole in the first place, but their personnel allows them to play a style that unsettles Philadelphia's defense. They're able to take Embiid out of plays, or at the very least take him away from the area of the court where he is most transformative.

Philadelphia needs to find a way to mitigate the damage on these plays, or at the very least punish Boston harder on offense to offset it. And that responsibility falls on...

Brett Brown, losing the coaching battle

There's not a ton to fault Brown for in terms of offensive gameplan, as we've been over several different times this week. And on defense the Sixers made the switches in matchups they should have — Covington and Simmons on Tatum and Rozier is a hell of a lot better than living with JJ Redick on either of those guys.

But Brown is coming up short on a lot of the game management and moment-to-moment stuff that can swing games and series. He refused to call for a timeout as Boston clawed their way back into the game in the second quarter, he inserted Simmons back into the game to close it out despite total ineffectiveness, and he was pressed on all those decisions after the game.

On the timeout decision specifically, he was steadfast in his belief that he made the right call.

"They went on a little run and then they went on another run I think at two minutes left. You know, you’re sitting there wondering about matchups, you’re thinking about timeouts, you’re thinking about all of it. And I feel like if I had to do it again, I would do the same thing," said Brown. "I would have had the same people in the game. Trying to, on the road, make sure you have an ample number of timeouts, you know it’s going to be a close game. That’s the decision I made.”

It seemed very obviously like the wrong decision at the time and certainly did after all was said and done. Beyond those Game 2 talking points (which we'll discuss at length shortly), Brown has been on the bad end of Stevens figuring out a way to take away what they do best. Philadelphia has the top-end talent advantage, sure, but if you're getting outplayed with both guys struggling to impact the game in the way they need to, a lot of responsibility falls at the feet of the head coach. 

Boston is not exactly reinventing the wheel with the coverage they're playing against Simmons, and the counters to some of the defensive concepts don't require next-level gameplans. The Celtics are switching on the majority of screens on Simmons, but they are doing so in sets that most often have Simmons as the ballhandler and the big (usually Embiid) as the screen-setter. If Horford is guarding Simmons initially, switching Horford onto Embiid isn't creating the sort of matchup problem Philadelphia want.

If you set early clock flat screens for Simmons with one of the shooters as the screener, the switch then puts Horford onto one of your perimeter threats. It's a different way to achieve what the Celtics are doing to drag Embiid out to the perimeter, and it sets up your next action — if you run a pick-and-roll after the initial action you can get someone like Tatum, Smart, or Rozier switching onto Embiid from Simmons. Before that, you can even hope to get Simmons with a favorable matchup in front of him and the ability to get downhill and attack.

And when Horford is sagging away from Simmons as he has been for a good chunk of this series, the Sixers should be attacking that space with their shooters as much as possible. If Horford is going to dare you to use that space and concede ground, the Sixers can run handoffs and pitches with Simmons and Redick/Belinelli all night, giving the shooters the green light to shoot as soon as they get around Simmons. He should not be getting turned into a passenger within the offense.

These aren't major adjustments, but they have the potential for major and series-shifting results. If Brown and his staff can't figure out a better path forward, something is very wrong.

Odds and ends

• A couple small notes as we move past that big three — Covington played one of the best all-around games he has ever played against Boston, considering the stakes and how poorly things were going around him at times. He was not blameless in Boston's major comeback and got toasted in isolation a few times, but he got his hands on a ton of balls and was flying around on both ends of the court. 

If the Sixers ended up winning that game somehow, he was your bell ringer, no questions asked. Redick get's the runner-up prize for keeping the offense afloat at times, but his missed three in the guts of the game absolutely killed their chance at a win.

• Something to keep in the back of your mind but not necessarily overreact to — you are seeing some of the limitations of the lineups the Sixers play against a smaller team with more ability to punish you with speed and athleticism. There have been some reminders of the difficulties facing Dario Saric as a high-level contributor in these playoffs, primarily when he's late or out of place for a defensive rotation.

Take nothing away from what he has achieved this season, but Saric's inconsistency on defense should remind people why most teams are trying to downsize and get more switchability on the floor whenever possible. He never lacks in effort, but there's still a logical limit to how effective he can be playing defense from the rim to the perimeter.

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