The Ghost of Playoffs Past – Observations from Celtics 109, Sixers 101

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The Sixers have the best player on the floor in this series, but unfortunately didn’t get his best game on Monday night. Joel Embiid started extremely well and finished with decent numbers, but only shot 15 field goals and barely touched the ball in the fourth quarter.

It’s just not enough, especially when the other team has the second, third, and fourth best players. That was one of the “narratives” being peddled before game one, and it sure looked like it last night, with the trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker each doing their damage in various periods. We all knew that a Ben Simmons-less team was going to need stellar Embiid performances to beat the Celtics, and game one was not stellar enough.

“Obviously, it’s not enough,” Embiid said of his involvement after the loss. “I feel like it’s whatever. We got a couple guys who had it going, but I guess with the way I started in the first quarter, I’ve just got to be more assertive and demand the ball. Just be aggressive.”

Otherwise the effort was there, and the Sixers went on a couple of great runs to make this game a lot closer than it seemed, but the familiar weaknesses came back to haunt Brett Brown’s team, among them:

  • 21 Boston points off 18 Sixer turnovers
  • 90 Boston field goals compared to 80 Sixer field goals
  • an offensive rebounding margin of -1, after losing 16 defensive boards to the Celtics


“You have to give them credit of how good they are at creating their own shot,” head coach Brett Brown said. “I hope we can do a better job of defending them in some of the schemes we’re trying to execute. The story of the game still isn’t difficult to speak of. You start looking at their offensive rebounds. We did a better job in the second half of turnovers, but if you go to the volume of points, 21 off our turnovers, 16 off the rebounds, and if Alec Burks makes a free throw, it’s a three-point game with 30 seconds left. I think Joel missed a tip-in to make it a two point game and give us a two-for-one opportunity. You can’t minimize the fact that losing stinks, but I feel like there are answers to the questions of ‘why’.”

In a way, this game felt like a somewhat perverse basketball version of A Christmas Carol, where the ghosts of playoffs past, present, and future rear their spectral and ugly heads. There are far too many stretches in these games where the Sixers have to work incredibly hard to get a decent look while the other team glides effortlessly to the basket on the other end.

“Laborious” is a fantastic descriptor, and you see it on possessions like this one, with the Sixers down four at the 1:38 mark, and they settle for a shitty shot.

Watch this clip:

When the initial drive isn’t there, Josh Richardson kicks the ball out for Burks, who wants Embiid on the low block. Problem is that Matisse Thybulle needs to clear out, and Embiid isn’t exactly working for the ball either. So they settle for a Tobias Harris step-back brick at a critical juncture of the game.

Here’s a good still frame of the play:

Richardson does the right thing here, and slides back to the weakside slot. Thybulle also vacates to the opposite side of the floor. But by the time it happens, there’s 10 seconds on the shot clock and Theis is fronting Embiid, who is just sort of standing at the elbow, opposite the ball. You can point to a lot of things going wrong with this possession, but the best player on the team has to be involved, and has to demand the ball. It would also help if the Sixers had a true point guard and floor general out there, because the lack of ball handling and direction really kills them in these late stages.

Too many clunky half court offensive possessions in this game, exemplified by the one above.

Defensive matchups and the need for re-jiggering

This is how the Sixers opened the game defensively:

  • Josh Richardson –> Jayson Tatum
  • Tobias Harris –>Gordon Hayward
  • Shake Milton –> Kemba Walker
  • Al Horford –> Jaylen Brown
  • Joel Embiid –> Daniel Theis

I thought it was the right idea to bring Matisse Thybulle off the bench, but they’re probably going to have to start him in game two, because there just aren’t enough bodies to match up with Boston’s guards and wings. And if you consider that Gordon Hayward messed up his ankle and seems iffy to play game two, then you’re looking at Marcus Smart coming into the starting lineup.

With the data from NBA Stats, here’s how the Sixers did defensively on Tatum:

Tatum shot 2-9 when defended by Thybulle and 6-9 when defended by Richardson and Harris. Matisse did a really nice job out there. It’s probably going to have to be him or Richardson on Tatum, because Harris is too big to seamlessly go over some of those pick and roll possessions and push the shooter off the foul line.

Brown on matchups and game two adjustments:

“For the most part, short of the starting group, that’s how it plays out, when you look at J Rich and Matisse’s minutes, they’re completely mirrored to Kemba and Jayson’s. To blow up the starting five in exchange for doing that, I’m not prepared to say that’s what’s going to happen. I look forward to going back and watching the tape and considering that option. But at the moment I feel like it’s just something I want to think more about.”

That’s the adjustment worth making, I think – Thybulle for Horford in the starting lineup. Boston will probably look smaller with Hayward likely out, so it makes sense in more ways than one.

Rotations and subbing

Thybulle was first off the bench, for Horford, bumping Harris down to power forward. Burks for Milton was the second sub, with Burks running point. From there, it was Mike Scott, Furkan Korkmaz, and Horford coming back on the floor around the 2:30 mark.

Glenn Robinson III was out with an oblique injury, though he would have played the entirety of the Korkmaz minutes if healthy. Raul Neto, Kyle O’Quinn, and Norvel Pelle were all DNP-CD.

Embiid finished the game at 37:30, and the gripe I saw most on social media had to do with him remaining on the bench until the 6:30 mark of the fourth quarter. Maybe that was too late, maybe not. Who knows? Thing is, Embiid played 37 in the recent Orlando game, but prior to the bubble, he’d only logged 37+ minutes twice, both of which were overtime games.

And in 20 career playoff games, he’s only crested 37 minutes on three occasions. Nobody should be surprised by the minutes he played in this one, because they’re par for the course.

Al Horford’s primal scream and flagrant foul

Couple of raw moments for Horford in this game, who finished -18 and shot 3-7 from the field.

He’s not a “wear your emotions on your sleeve” type of player, and in fact is kind of sleepy and business-like to the point of non-interfacing with an emotional Philadelphia fan base, but jeez did he really let out some frustration with this:

Problem is that once the demons were exorcised, the non-pragmatic version of Horford carried the zealousness to the defensive end, where he committed a hard foul on Jaylen Brown, resulting in a review and upgrade to a flagrant-1.

You tell me if this is a flagrant foul:

Ten years ago it wouldn’t have been.

The Celtics were up two at that point and then went up four, plus they got the ball back, Brown went again to the foul line,and hit two more free throws. Ridiculous four point swing there, and part of a 9-0 Boston run that also included two outrageous offensive rebounds for the Celtics.

That was a sequence that really killed them.

Other notes:

  • It’s a real shame that no fans are at these games. Just doesn’t feel like a playoff game.
  • The national broadcasters always mess up somebody’s name. We got a “Jason Richardson” about eight minutes into the first quarter, then Mark Jones said it again right before halftime.
  • Seven first quarter turners, almost every single one coming from a loose post entry pass.
  • Burks, while not a true point guard, is adding something the Sixers really just didn’t have previously, which is the ability to create off the dribble and find a shot.
  • This is a Tobias Harris 20+ shot per game series. Ben Simmons isn’t out there. You’re making $180 million. It’s time to step up and be assertive, because 15 points on 15 shots isn’t getting it done.
  • The only explanation for Brown calling a timeout during the 3rd quarter run is that Embiid was tired.
  • Boston might have gotten away with an eight-second violation at the end of the game.
  • The in-game interview must be fired into the sun. Not once has it ever provided anything useful or necessary. The coaches speak to the media before the game and after the game. There is never any legitimate reason to have the coach talk during a game. They’re not saying anything interesting anyway.
  • I love the Sixers’ coaches untucked shirt look.
  • Steve Javie doesn’t need to wear a mask when reporting remotely on a foul call.
  • 6:30 p.m. really is a great start time for a game, as long as you’ve got the spouse to put the kids to bed.

Enjoy your Tuesday.