Nothing feels like a playoff game in the early stages of an NBA season played during a pandemic, so it wouldn’t be accurate to call the Sixers’ win over the Celtics on Friday night at all similar to the postseason.
It was nevertheless a high-intensity, physical victory for the Sixers over an Eastern Conference foe, 122-110. Joel Embiid led the Sixers again with 38 points on 11-for-15 shooting and 11 rebounds.
After sweeping this mini-series against Boston, the Sixers are now 11-5 and first in the conference. They’ll play the Pistons on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Here are observations on their win Friday:
Embiid’s foul trouble, frustration and domination
Embiid opened the game in prime form, scoring five of the Sixers’ first seven points. He split a Boston double team with a nimble step-through layup, hit a pull-up jumper and converted one of two free throws after earning a trip to the line with a pump fake that fooled Tristan Thompson.
Boston drew a couple of early fouls on Embiid, though, the second of which came after he ventured up to defend a pick-and-roll with Kemba Walker and couldn’t corral the All-Star guard. Head coach Doc Rivers took no chances with Embiid’s foul trouble, calling on Dwight Howard to replace him with 5:34 left in the first period.
Unsurprisingly, the Sixers lost their early lead when Embiid sat and didn’t have much apparent purpose or energy on offense outside of Shake Milton seeking opportunities to create shots. Howard was well below his best, committing two first-quarter turnovers and missing a tip-in chance off of a Matisse Thybulle miss.
Turnovers weren’t exclusively a Howard issue as the Sixers gave it away 12 times in the first half, including on five offensive fouls. Embiid’s third foul with 1:24 to go in the second quarter was one of them, and he wasn’t pleased, smacking away an offer of water.
His frustration continued early in the third period as he felt the referees missed multiple foul calls on Daniel Theis. Rivers and the Sixers’ bench vehemently agreed with Embiid, appearing incredulous that their star wasn’t hearing whistles. Perhaps the officials were aware of the tension between Embiid and Marcus Smart about “flailing” and aiming not to reward any potential exaggerations of contact.
“I feel like I could’ve gone to the free throw line another 10 times,” Embiid said. “I knew coming into the game, after they complained, I knew the officiating was going to be a little tight for us and, I guess, better for them. Before the game I told myself and I told my teammates, ‘They’re not going to give us anything but I’m going to make them call it.’ I was aggressive, which caused a lot of turnovers. I had too many for tonight. But I had to be aggressive just to make sure I scored or got to the free throw line.”
Howard was overmatched on several occasions in pick-and-roll defense, struggling to guard beyond the three-point line as the Sixers asked their big men to take a more aggressive approach. There’s a tricky middle ground with that mode of pick-and-roll coverage between deterring ball handlers and not falling victim to their superior quickness, and Howard wasn’t able to find it.
To Howard’s credit, his play improved considerably after his initial stint. The Sixers actually extended their lead late in the third quarter with Howard in the game and Embiid out.
“It was huge,” Embiid said. “The previous years, when I usually went to the bench, (there were) a lot of leads being lost. It’s great that when the starters or when I go on the bench, the guys on the floor are able to keep it up and actually grow the lead. It’s a welcome sight and I love it.”
For the most part, Embiid did well to channel his negative feelings about the officiating into determined, dominant play. He chatted with Ben Simmons for a couple of minutes shortly before the start of the third quarter and also shared some words in the new “cool down” area late in the period, seemingly wanting to be sure that the two were on the same page about how exactly the team’s offense should run in the second half. With Celtics star Jayson Tatum still out after reportedly testing positive for COVID-19, Embiid wouldn’t let the Sixers squander this game.
Simmons produced at a very important juncture after mostly serving as a facilitator through the first three quarters. Seven of his 15 points came right after the Celtics made a fourth-quarter run to cut the Sixers’ lead to 101-97. Simmons tipped in a miss, converted an and-one layup and coasted in for a dunk off of a steal.
A 25-point game from Simmons would be great, of course, but his scoring isn’t a problem at all when the Sixers are winning and he’s making winning plays.
“He’s doing so many things for this team,” Rivers said. “His winning formula is amazing. Last game he got no credit and he was so important to why we won that game with all the things he’s doing — the little cuts, the little back picks, the rolls and passes. Ben does a lot.
“He can’t focus on one thing, like focusing him on just scoring. He’s too good for that, to me. It would be a waste if that was all we focused on for him. What I did like is he went downhill tonight more and finished at the basket. That’s what he has to do; that’s what we’re working on.”
Curry’s jumper is just fine
Seth Curry returned to the court Friday night, his first game since testing positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 7. He clearly didn’t have as much wind as usual, a predictable obstacle given that the NBA’s health and safety protocols mandate any player who tests positive for COVID-19 not exercise for at least 10 days, but there was nothing wrong with his jumper as he nailed his first three attempts. All told, the Sixers started a remarkable 9 for 9 from the floor.
In 27 minutes, Curry posted 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting. His outside shooting and playmaking are obviously important traits for the Sixers in the big picture, as we saw during the team’s 7-1 start. Realistically, it will take some time before he’s back at his physical peak, though this was quite the smooth return.
“I was surprised,” Rivers said. “I never could shoot. I guess when you can shoot, you can shoot. I guess you can take 10 days off or two weeks off and still make shots. The beginning of the game I was like, this guy has missed games? I was surprised how well he shot the ball and how good his rhythm was.”
Milton, Thybulle, Furkan Korkmaz, Tyrese Maxey and Howard remained the Sixers’ second unit with Curry back in the mix. Maxey didn’t check into the game until there was 9:17 left in the second quarter and only played six minutes total. His play during Curry’s absence evidently didn’t lead Rivers to think he deserved an immediate increase in minutes. That said, the rookie is a no-brainer member of the Sixers’ rotation for the foreseeable future.
Thybulle, as he’s tended to do recently, made a couple of eyebrow-raising defensive plays. He blocked two Walker jumpers, recovering impressively to disrupt the Celtics guard.
Thybulle’s 21 minutes were the most of any Sixers bench player as he played the final 4 minutes and 32 seconds in place of Danny Green.
Harris an All-Star? If he keeps shooting like this …
Embiid said Tobias Harris “should be an All-Star” after Wednesday’s win, and Harris again backed up that early internal buzz with 23 points on 10-for-12 shooting, a night that enhances his already-stellar efficiency numbers. Harris entered the evening with close to 50/40/90 shooting splits.
The trademark of his play early in the season has been simplicity. On the rare moments when he did try an advanced dribble move or two Friday and didn’t create space, he mostly moved the ball to an open teammate instead of forcing anything difficult or complicated.
“We stay on him,” Rivers said. “Same thing in L.A. Just quick decisions. If you catch it, shoot it. If you catch it, drive it. If you dribble it, pass it. It’s pretty simple for him and when he stays in that formula, he’s unbelievable. He’s a train going downhill. He’s got a beautiful shot.
“It’s when he hesitates and guys get into him is when he gets himself in trouble. He had a couple of those tonight, but I love how he’s playing, I love the confidence he’s playing with. He’s rebounding, too, this year for us. So, he’s just doing a lot of stuff. He’s been great.”
For most of Harris’ first 13 games this season, there hasn’t been much that needs to be said about his performance. That’s a better situation for the Sixers than being concerned about Harris’ fit, his role or why he isn’t playing like he did during his career-best stretch with Rivers and the Clippers.