After abysmal 27-point playoff losses like the one the Sixers suffered against the Celtics on Wednesday night in Game 2 of their first-round series, there aren’t usually quick and easy fixes available.
There are certainly tactical tweaks on the table, though.
One obvious possibility was raised by Joel Embiid, who scored 34 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the 128-101 Game 2 defeat.
"Just gotta be aggressive, gotta be physical,” he said on a video conference call Wednesday night of guarding Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, a trio that combined for 75 points. “They’ve got a bunch of guys that can put it on the floor and score the ball. But you’ve gotta pick your poison. Jayson has been killing it, so you’ve gotta find a way to get the ball out of his hands.
"I know they want me to sit back on pick-and-rolls and protect the basket, but they’ve just been coming off and making a lot of threes, so we’ve gotta make adjustments. Either I’ve gotta come up and we’ve gotta scramble all over the place or something’s gotta change. It feels too easy. They’re just walking into those shots. We’ve gotta fix that."
Embiid’s point about deviating from the Sixers’ typical pick-and-roll coverage of having the guard try to work over the screen and having himself drop is clearly a fair one to consider. The Celtics made 19 of 43 three-point attempts on Wednesday, including 6 of 9 pull-up threes by Tatum. Though the Sixers did slide Embiid up a bit in the second half and have generally been more willing to experiment with Al Horford, the pick-and-roll coverage isn’t working. Celtics ball handlers have generated 1.13 points per pick-and-roll possession over the first two games. The Sixers’ ball handlers, meanwhile, are at a lowly 0.72 points per pick-and-roll possession, and shooting just 9 for 30 on those plays.
Part of that is a small sample size — 0.72 points per possession would’ve been last in the NBA and well below the Sixers' production during the regular season — and part of that is an indication that the Celtics have multiple effective, shifty ball handlers and the Sixers do not.
As for the idea of changing things up with pick-and-roll defense, Brett Brown said pregame he still liked having Embiid back, but he acknowledged, just as Embiid did, that it was a “pick your poison” scenario. He sounded like he was weighing his options moving forward after the game.
“I think that you have to be smart about it,” he said. “The obvious answer is to bring 7-foot-2 out of the paint and bring 7-foot-2 up so that there is some level of pressure. The punishment behind it is real — rollers and scrambles and so on. If you look at how many baskets they scored out of the pick-and-roll as far as threes go, I think Tatum had three and I think Kemba had one. They are dangerous in a mid-range game, this is true. I feel like in the second half, we did do that with some success, but it wasn’t enough.”
An adjustment Brown made in Game 2 that didn’t seem necessary was bringing in Raul Neto over Alec Burks for the initial backup point guard minutes. Burks, who scored 18 points in Game 1 and averaged 14.6 points over the seeding games, didn’t appear until the 8:41 mark of the second quarter.
“We were going to give him just a little clump of minutes,” Brown said of Neto. “When you look at how we’re substituting, there’s a method to the madness, trying to see when Jayson’s in the game or Kemba’s in the game. And when they’re not, you come in with different pairings.
“With Raul, we thought we could give him just a quick burst. And we thought he played well. He came in, he had an assist, he made a shot, he had a little bit of spark with a pace. That group that he played with, I think that it benefits from a breakaway, faster point guard. We ended up deciding to go with him longer than we anticipated, but we did it for that reason.”
Brown’s desire to seek solutions is understandable but it seems, judging by his explanation, that he was attempting to fix a specific problem that didn’t exist. Burks wasn’t great as a distributor in Game 1 and isn’t the most transition-oriented player, yes, but he’s the Sixers’ best shot creator off the bench. And, though Neto had a couple of positive moments, the Sixers were up 11 points when he entered for his first stint Wednesday and down four when he exited.
These type of decisions, of course, are not very important when considering the big picture of Boston looking like the more talented and more cohesive team — by a healthy margin. Burks’ playing those first-quarter Neto minutes likely wouldn’t have mattered much. He was one of many Sixers to have a difficult night and shot 1 for 8.
Presumably, Brown will make various tactical and personnel changes for Game 3. Furkan Korkmaz might be a candidate for more playing time, though he alone is unlikely to transform the Sixers into a good three-point shooting team. The Sixers shot 5 for 21 from three-point territory on Wednesday, an extreme illustration of a pre-existing issue. During the regular season, the Sixers were 19th in made three-pointers and 22nd in attempts. Those rankings were bolstered by a team-leading 143 made threes from Korkmaz, a player who’s difficult to trust in the postseason because of his subpar defense.
Whatever Brown adjusts, winning four games in this series appears to be a gargantuan task with the roster that’s been assembled, and especially so without Ben Simmons.