It’s difficult to win playoff games when you shoot 29.5 percent from the floor and 23.1 percent from three-point range. That’s what the Sixers did on Friday night, and they fell to the Celtics, 102-94, in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series. The Celtics ended the game on a 10-0 run.
Joel Embiid led the Sixers with 30 points and 13 rebounds, while Kemba Walker had a team-high 24 points for Boston.
The Sixers will try to avoid elimination in Game 4, which is Sunday at 1 p.m.
Richardson checks Tatum, Horford disappoints
The Sixers returned to their Game 1 starting lineup, going with Al Horford over Matisse Thybulle, and the decision did not look very good early.
Horford was beaten backdoor by Jaylen Brown on the Celtics’ first possession and an overzealous, sloppy Horford closeout gave Brown three foul shots on Boston’s third trip down the floor.
Instead of Thybulle, Josh Richardson opened up on Tatum, who scored 15 points on 6 for 19 shooting and couldn’t sustain his impressive groove from the opening two games. Richardson deserves credit for defending Tatum well, too. He pulled off a rearview rejection on a third-quarter Tatum three-point attempt and contested the 22-year-old’s jumpers as tightly as possible.
The Sixers also received a bit of good fortune when Tatum ran into foul trouble, which limited him to eight first-half minutes. Tatum’s absence allowed the Sixers to match Thybulle up on Jaylen Brown in the second quarter and give Horford a less taxing assignment against reserve forward Semi Olejeye.
Again, Horford was mostly on the outskirts of the play offensively. The “big-big relationship” with Embiid hasn’t come to fruition as Brett Brown and the Sixers envisioned, and that’s also true of the Horford signing in general. He had six points (1 for 5 shooting) and 10 rebounds and saw Walker hit a jumper in his face with less than a minute to go that put Boston up four.
Trying his best to carry the load
Following the Sixers’ Game 1 loss, Embiid said he needed to “carry” the Sixers. He did just that in the first half, or at least kept his team close. A trail three from the top of the key gave Embiid 19 of the Sixers’ first 33 points. Before any other Sixer had converted a three, Embiid had made two, and he was characteristically hard to handle down low.
Though the Sixers didn’t go as far as having Embiid hedge or blitz regularly on pick-and-rolls, they did bring him further up from the beginning of the game to deter the Celtics’ pull-up shooting and present Boston’s ball handlers a different look.
Embiid and Horford often played what assistant coach and de facto defensive coordinator Ime Udoka refers to as “up to touch” coverage, meaning he was far enough up to reach out and touch the back of the screener. The scheme wasn’t a magic solution, but it was generally effective. Boston shot 8 for 31 from long range, and Celtics guards seemed compelled to make quicker, less relaxed decisions when coming off ball screens.
Embiid, who posted 22 points and 10 rebounds in the first half, was forced to the bench with 10:03 remaining in the third quarter when he picked up his fourth foul. He ultimately couldn’t pull the Sixers across the finish line and had two costly turnovers late in the fourth period that led to fast breaks, but the loss clearly does not fall on him.
Waiting on Harris’ first made 3 …
Brett Brown lauded Tobias Harris’ character and commitment before the game, calling him a “prideful human being.” We saw what Brown was talking about in the first quarter as Harris crashed the offensive boards, posted up smaller defenders and also slid his feet well defensively. He had nine points and four rebounds in the opening period after totaling 28 points on 10 for 30 shooting over the series’ first two games.
However, Harris’ offense production faded after that strong start as he failed to deliver the scoring the Sixers require from their most expensive player, finishing with 15 points on 6 for 19 shooting.
Harris is 0 for 10 from three-point range in the series, which is an absurd statistic for many reasons. Harris made 42.6 percent of his threes during his 87-game stint with the Clippers, who dealt him to the Sixers in February of 2019. He passed up an open three-point opportunity in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Shaking up the rotation
There were a few notable rotation changes for the Sixers. Furkan Korkmaz was the first player off the bench, while Alec Burks took all of the backup point guard minutes (no Raul Neto after the Brazilian played 14:44 in Game 2). Thybulle only played 8:31 and Mike Scott came in for 4:59 at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth.
The chance for Korkmaz was justifiable in the context of the Sixers’ poor three-point shooting this series, but the move didn’t pay off. Korkmaz missed all four of his field-goal attempts on Friday and still hasn’t scored over the first three games. On a few third-quarter defensive possessions, Walker blew by Korkmaz with no resistance. That’s the risk of using Korkmaz when he’s not sinking shots, and another reminder that the Sixers’ roster lacks versatility on the wing.