Foul-a-Delphia: Observations from Sixers 117, Celtics 109

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Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Talk about execution down the stretch.

The Seth Curry-less Sixers got late contributions from pretty much everybody in an eight-point home win over the Jayson Tatum-less Celtics. They got a clutch offensive rebound from Danny Green and two free throws from Shake Milton. They got a tough bucket from Tobias Harris. They got two big defensive plays from Ben Simmons while Joel Embiid continues to play at an MVP level.

He scored 42 points and went to the foul line 21 times, hitting 17 from the stripe. The Sixers took 45 free throws on Wednesday night, prompting Celtics guard Marcus Smart to say this afterward:

“It is tough. Especially when we’ve got our hands up a lot of the times and he flails and gets the call. I mean, I’d be on (my game) too, if every time I threw my arms up or every time I got touched I’m going to the free-throw line. It’s kind of hard not to get into a rhythm that way when you shoot 21 free throws alone, and they allow you to hack on the other end.”

Hmmm… strong words! Embiid was asked about that in his media availability and said this:

“Marcus Smart just told me that I flail a lot? Come on. I’m sure he knows himself and he knows his game, too. He does a lot of that. And I don’t think I do. I mean, if you watch basketball and if you’re a student of the game and if you actually pay attention during the game, we all see (that) every single foul, I get fouled. They probably don’t call all of them. The game is physical. Other teams tend to try to be extra physical against me. I guess I’m just smarter than everybody else, I just take advantage of it. If you’re going to put your hand up there, I’m gonna take advantage of it and I’m gonna get to the free-throw line because I know that I’m a great free throw shooter and that’s a better chance for me to help the team win in those situations.”

It’s hard to argue with that, and this is a case of not hating the player, but hating the game instead. Hating the way these fouls are called in the contemporary NBA.

Joel is programmed not necessarily to seek contact, but to initiate when he feels contact. So if Daniel Theis or somebody else moves their arm downward at an angle that is any less than 90%, Embiid instinctually pulls into shooting motion and goes right into the arms.

Then the whistle blows.

It’s less about flailing, in my mind, and more about how he’s able to use his size and his brains to rip through and motion himself into contact when defenders slip up.

For what it’s worth, Joel’s previous career high in free-throw attempts was 23, which he took in a 2018 win against Detroit. He had another game that season with 22 attempts and a third with 21 attempts, so last night’s total actually would be tied for third-most free throws in a single game. As for the Sixers, 36 made free throws is the highest total dating back to 2019, when they hit 39 of 43 in a home win, also against Boston.

Executing when it matters

Not the greatest first half ever for the Sixers, who went into the break down by three.

But they outscored Boston by 14 in the fourth quarter and head coach Doc Rivers felt like the momentum began to shift at the end of the third:

“I loved that fourth quarter. I actually loved the third quarter, the second half of that quarter. We were searching a bit, and I thought it was like that the whole game. We got off to a great start, they caught up and took the lead, but I thought the end of the third was big because the second unit was on the floor, closed the gap and tied the game. Then the starters came in and defensively we ran them off the three point line and put them inside, but we didn’t give them easy twos. A lot of deflections, a lot of hands on the ball. It was a really hard-played game by both teams.”

They really did clamp down in the fourth, as you can tell by looking at Boston’s shot plot in that period:

Boston was 1-9 from three point range in the fourth quarter and 11-24 in the other three quarters. That, to me, is the defensive story of the game.

I also think you have to give a lot of credit to Simmons for two plays specifically in the late fourth quarter, the first when he pickpocketed Theis following an offensive rebound on a Jaylen Brown miss:

Big play there. Somebody blew a defensive assignment, as you can see Tobias Harris gesturing with his hands, but Ben salvages the possession by stripping Theis from behind and regaining possession with a four-point lead and 1:14 on the clock.

On the Celtics’ very next offensive sequence, this happened:

That’s good defense. Kemba Walker, DHO with Theis, and Embiid steps through to let Simmons stay attached. Ben is able to keep up with Kemba as he rounds the corner, then keep enough of a body on him to force a wild finger roll and miss.

It doesn’t seem like much on the surface, but you have to consider that Walker is 6’0″ and Ben is 6″10″. For him to keep up with a much smaller and much quicker player on a corner turn and drive is pretty impressive, considering the fact that most traditional bigs would be left in the dust if they had to defend that. It just shows Ben’s versatility on the perimeter and his ability to guard 1 to 3 on dribble drives.

Offensively, yes, they need more from Simmons. Much more. He only had 11 points last night and shot five field goals, but did hit seven of 10 free throw attempts. Bottom line, however, is that you have to highlight Ben’s defense or else we’re not telling the full story.

Flop, flop, flop-adelphia

In the fourth quarter, Theis got whistled for a foul on this play, which the Celtics unsuccessfully challenged:

lol

So he’s trying the ole’ swim move to get better positioning on Embiid, Joel falls backward, catches Theis in the face, and they both go to the floor.

The hand to the face doesn’t appear to be much, so in this case, we are giving Daniel Theis the Academy Award for best supporting role in a flopping motion picture:

Here’s another fantastic angle:

Other notes:

  • That Furkan Korkmaz reverse dunk in transition was nasty. Holy shit. I didn’t know he had it in him.
  • Isaiah Joe didn’t play at all, zero minutes with Korkmaz back in the fold and taking his spot on the wing.
  • 16 points for Shake Milton on 4-10 shooting, but he was 6-6 from the line. Turnovers were an issue last night, but he’s a consistent scorer off the bench this year.
  • Tobias Harris has been in double figures every game this season.
  • Matisse Thybulle was 0-3 from the floor but ripped off four steals.
  • Tyrese Maxey didn’t hit a shot in 21 minutes starting in Curry’s place. Two rebounds and two assists, but he didn’t turn the ball over at all.
  • Only nine team turnovers in the entire game. Really impressive considering this squad’s struggles over the years.
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