They did it.
They beat Boston.
Gotta be honest; I didn’t think they had it in them. There was a point in this game where the Celtics were shooting 63%, the Sixers couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, and the refs were all over the place. Then Marcus Smart shoved Joel Embiid, got himself ejected, and Brett Brown’s team scrapped their way back from a double-digit deficit to claim the elusive Boston win and get the monkey off their back.
And when I say monkey, I’m talking a really big monkey, like King Kong. This was was like taking King Kong, lifting him over your head, and tossing him into the Delaware River. It was like taking Koko the sign language Gorilla, slapping him in the face, and saying “you’re not the boss of me.”
No exaggerations, that was a monstrous win, and something they direly needed. Think about everything you’d be hearing this morning if they didn’t win – “Brett Brown can’t coach,” “Ben Simmons can’t shoot,” “Joel Embiid got punked by Al Horford again,” etc. It would have been all of that all over again, Pandora’s Box times infinity, a 0-4 regular season series record against the Celtics as the main course, with dessert coming in the form of fan skepticism and a total lack of confidence in the Sixers’ ability to beat the teams in the top five of the Eastern Conference.
The Sixers, however, played it pretty cool after the game. They played the “act like you’ve been there” card, which is good to see, even though they really have not been there, at least not very often over the last three years since Boston owns them. I asked Brett after the game if he was aware of what a win like this meant insofar as defeating the idea that the Sixers just couldn’t beat the better clubs in the east:
Crossing Broad: Brett, are you aware of how much a win like this – I know you don’t do social media – but how far a win like this goes towards combating a narrative that you can’t get over the Boston hump, that you can’t beat the best teams in the Eastern Conference? In the last six days you have wins over Milwaukee and Boston now.
Brown: And I believe you, but I have no idea what you just said (laughter in the room). I really mean that. I can understand. I get what you’re saying –
CB: Surely you’ve got to be aware that –
Brown: No I’m aware, I’m aware, but when you deliver it that way, like there’s some frenzy on Facebook or whatever, I’m not aware of that, but –
CB: I think the statistic that was going around was that you guys were 1-7 against Milwaukee, Boston, and Toronto. That was the number. Now it’s 3-7, two good wins in a row.
Brown: What they should say, if we’re all sort of fair and reasonable, is that we have a new team. Maybe the times have changed; this team is 7 and 1. The only loss they’ve had was by three to Boston in game 57, I think it was and so like the rules change, things change, it’s so much a part of our league, it’s something I’ve learned in all my years doing this, that you really have to as best as you can, put things in perspective, don’t overreact, it’s 82 games, keep people in the boat, land the plane, all the stuff you hear me say all the time. And in fairness to that (locker) room, it’s a different team. If we walk back there and saw Dario and Cov and all that maybe you say, ‘Oh, there are some things we have to do,’ and I say that with excitement. Although that number isn’t large, eight games together as the starting five, the excitement of what we can grow to and as I keep saying, jumping to this playoffs and take off is what my job is. I think the spirit of the group, I thought the tenacity of that team, where they didn’t waiver in belief was as much of an important factor to me as it is when I look down and say oh by the way we won.”
I think that’s a good answer, and something that probably needs to be hammered home repeatedly, the idea that he’s coaching a different group for the third time this year. The lack of continuity has been staggering, but the coach is the same and the two most important players, Joel and Ben, none of that has changed. Regardless of what the team looks like as a whole, the coach and All-Star pair needed to show improvement against Boston, and they did last night.
To the game itself
You saw what I saw, which was a lot of same stuff Boston has done against Philly going back two seasons now.
First of all, they came out looking like the Warriors, as they always do. There was a point in the first half where they were shooting 58% from three while the Sixers seemed a bit nervy as they settled for less-than-stellar looks. Boston moved the ball, they attacked mismatches, and played their typically frustrating defensive game. They just are not a good matchup for the Sixers.
On a macro level, I think these things really helped Philly win last night:
- Joel only took three three-pointers. He tried eight in the last game. This time around, he made a concerted effort to get to the rim, which resulted in him attempting a career-high 21 free throws, 20 of which he made. That’s an absolutely absurd number.
- The Sixers only turned the ball over eight times, leading to just 7 Boston points. It was their third best number of the season, having twice committed only seven turnovers (wins at Charlotte and vs. Lakers). In the previous two Boston games, they turned it over 14 and 16 times.
- 17 offensive rebounds really helped the Sixers scrape together some extra possessions, allowing them 90 total shots compared to 96 for the Celtics. A 5 to 1 steal margin also really helped in this department. The Sixers had typically been losing in these auxiliary categories vs. Boston.
- Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler started 6-23 before hitting something like their next five shots in a row, which took place in the fourth quarter. They got very little from those guys before the fourth, but got big shots when needed.
- The free-throw shooting was 10x better last night. They hit 39-43, 90.7%, compared to hitting just above 70% in the last Boston game.
- Jayson Tatum committed at least three horrible fouls that I counted.
- Gordon Hayward didn’t play, Marcus Smart’s ejection changed Boston’s rotation and eliminated a mismatch option, and Aron Baynes left the game with an ankle injury.
On a macro level, these things did not go well and remain concerns:
- Boban can’t be used against Boston. He’s just not a good matchup out there, not mobile enough defensively and not effective enough offensively. That’s why Mike Scott played 21 small ball minutes.
- The Sixers bench again struggled to impact the game, getting outscored 37-8. They were outscored by Boston in all four games this year.
- Philly’s transition game was restricted, just 9 fast break points vs. a season average in the 15 range. Ben Simmons still has trouble getting his easy buckets at the rim against this team, though he had a huge late drive against Marcus Morris in the 4th quarter.
- Too many easy switches to allow Boston to hunt mismatches. I understand it’s part of the Sixers’ defensive scheme, but it was too easy for the Celtics to get Kyrie Irving matched up against pretty much anybody he wanted.
- Terry Rozier continues to kill the Sixers off the bench.
Alright, let’s go micro now. Let’s look at the last five minutes of the game, when it was tied 105-105 after Butler hit that pair of consecutive three-pointers. Joel Embiid and JJ Redick were given a brief rest before coming back in at the 4:00 minute mark.
The Celtics obviously went right at JJ on their next offensive possession:
That’s Brad Stevens’ bread and butter there, a little Allen Iverson cut with the high half-screen, post up JJ down low and take advantage of that mismatch. Jaylen Brown almost hit that shot even though he was fouled hard at the rim.
“Here we go again,” I thought to myself at that point, having seen this movie before.
Joel Embiid double-dribbled on the Sixers’ next possession, and instead of going back at Redick in the post, the Celtics put him in two pick and rolls, first getting Irving 1v1 with him on a switch, then swinging the ball to Tatum for a corner three on the next possession. They missed both shots, plus both free throws via Brown (the second was a lane violation), so the Sixers finally got a 4th quarter break despite the Celtics doing what they typically do and targeting Redick down the stretch.
On the Sixers’ end, they really sort of mirrored what Boston likes to do. They put Butler and Harris in pick and rolls to isolate Irving, resulting in plays like this one:
You see Brett up off the bench there, calling for the ’34’ pick and roll between the small forward and power forward, then waving Butler towards the ball. Sure enough, Boston switches Tatum and Irving, Jimmy gets the mismatch, and just drives Kyrie to the hoop.
They ran the same exact 34 PNR on the next play and got Harris for a wide open dunk after Boston blew their defensive assignments:
That was pretty much what you saw down the stretch from both teams. Which club can get the best mismatch, attack it, and make their shots? Both sides just went for it over and over again, and Philly simply hit more of their looks. The strategies were essentially the same, with Irving and Butler trading looks for something like two or three minutes worth of possessions.
Near the one-minute mark, the Sixers switched it up slightly, getting Embiid a post-up off a horns set, then another horns-looking set, the one they used to spring Simmons for the killer drive, and-1 against Morris.
So what did Boston do on their ensuing possession? Same thing. They looked for a mismatch, got Kyrie on Embiid, and then this happened:
What a recovery from Joel Embiid with the game on the line 💪 pic.twitter.com/v9mHjhpOgT
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 21, 2019
It’s just insane athleticism, first for Joel to readjust as not to clatter into the player from behind, then second to turn his body and block that shot with his left hand. That’s two games in a week now where his 4th quarter blocks have essentially resulted in wins (Sacramento was the other).
Then the big Jimmy iso shot at the other end, and that pretty much sealed it.
No, this wasn’t the smoothest win on the planet, but there was a lot to like about the end of this game. Sure, Boston got their looks, but the Sixers essentially just tried to fight fire with fire by emulating the mismatch-hunting strategy and they made more plays down the stretch. Brett subbed defensively and got James Ennis on the floor at the end. He identified that 34 pick and roll as a way to isolate Irving and I thought he certainly helped his case in the “Brad Stevens owns Brett Brown” narrative department.
This should be a confidence booster for Sixers fans, because instead of going into the playoffs now feeling very iffy about this team’s chances, you’ve ripped off a couple of “maybe they do have a chance” type of wins over the past six days. They’ve built up a lot of momentum and goodwill, and now that continues into Saturday instead of crashing back to Earth in the flaming wreckage of social media hot takes and assorted myopic frothing.