The Sixers are down two games to none in their first-round series against the Celtics, and yet it surely feels worse after their 128-101 loss Wednesday night. Boston was superior to the Sixers in almost every category.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 33 points and five assists. Game 3 is Friday at 6:30 p.m.
Here are observations on Wednesday loss:
Embiid did his part …
Joel Embiid’s Game 2 start was similar to the way he opened on Monday night. He made his first three field goals, scored 9 of the Sixers’ first 13 points and was determined to attack Daniel Theis before defensive help could arrive. Another positive for Embiid was that he was involved in several pick-and-rolls and had a few scoring opportunities near the foul line area off those actions.
Unlike in Game 1, Embiid and the Sixers didn’t waste possessions. They took a 25-11 lead by hitting 10 of their first 12 shots and only turning it over once in the opening quarter. Of course, the Sixers squandered that strong start and Embiid’s 34-point, 10-rebound night.
The impact of Hayward’s injury
With Gordon Hayward out for approximately four weeks because of a Grade III right ankle sprain, Marcus Smart slid into the starting lineup for Boston.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens added forward Semi Ojeleye to his rotation, a matchup that looked advantageous for Al Horford, or at least much less challenging than his Game 1 assignment against Jaylen Brown. Stevens then found success in the second quarter by using a lineup with two rookies, employing 6-foot-6 Grant Williams as a small-ball center vs. Horford and Romeo Langford on the wing.
Horford, who had four points and two rebounds in 23 minutes, hasn’t met expectations thus far in the series, and the same can most certainly be said of his season as a whole.
Matisse Thybulle started in place of Horford.
Despite his immense defensive talents, it’s clear Thybulle is not going to single-handedly stop Tatum. Again, Thybulle didn’t gamble excessively or make a ton of rookie mistakes, but Tatum is a very tough cover. Guarding him is a team effort, too, and there were several moments when Tatum got switched on to a defender other than Thybulle and made him pay.
Thybulle contributed little offensively, scoring two points on two field-goal attempts.
At least on paper, the defensive matchups were a bit better with this starting group. Shake Milton was on Kemba Walker, Josh Richardson took Jaylen Brown and Tobias Harris guarded Smart. Unfortunately for the Sixers, the Celtics found their outside shooting stroke and hurt the Sixers’ “over and drop” pick-and-roll coverage by sinking pull-up jumpers. Boston shot 19 for 43 from three-point range, while the Sixers were just 5 for 21.
A surprise personnel decision
Raul Neto was a surprise inclusion for the Sixers, getting the initial backup point guard minutes over Alec Burks, who scored 18 points and served as the team’s sixth man in Game 1. It’s unclear exactly why Brett Brown made that move, but whatever the rationale for sitting the team’s foremost shot creator off the bench until there was 8:41 left in the second quarter, it didn’t work.
Boston went on a 13-3 run to begin the second period and wiped out the Sixers’ lead with Neto on the floor. While Neto is a solid, traditional point guard that’s nice to have as an option, Burks’ Game 1 showing didn’t warrant this change. He had two turnovers Monday and should’ve hit Embiid in the post more down the stretch, but using Neto over him was a puzzling decision.
Burks had two points on 1 for 8 shooting, so it’s not as if him taking Neto’s first-quarter minutes would’ve saved the Sixers.
Roster construction the primary problem
While it isn’t the only statistic that matters, Tobias Harris’ 28 points on 10 for 30 shooting through two games is insufficient. He hasn't made a three-point shot in the series. The Sixers envisioned a lot more when they gave him a five-year, $180 million contract last July, but he’s yet to show needed playoff improvements in isolation scoring and three-point shooting after small signs of promise during the seeding games.
Neither Harris nor Horford — general manager Elton Brand’s two main offseason moves — have come close to fulfilling his vision, despite the Sixers’ insistence that the team is “built for the playoffs.” In addition to the left knee injury that’s sidelining Ben Simmons indefinitely, the roster construction is the Sixers' clearest, biggest problem at the moment.
The Celtics are the smaller, quicker, more well-rounded group, one aligned with modern NBA team-building philosophies. Though the Sixers might not have been blown out if Harris had performed at his typical level, the reality is they still would’ve lost, and likely by double digits.