Joel Embiid said Tuesday night that he hasn't been having fun this season. It looked like he was having a blast at TD Garden Thursday.
In what was easily Embiid's finest game of the season, the Sixers ramped up their defense in the second half to beat the Celtics, 115-109.
Al Horford did not play against his former team as he's dealing with left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness.
Embiid was his dominant self and Tobias Harris had an outstanding second half in helping give Boston its first home loss of the season. The Sixers also did well to hold Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to a combined 8 of 27.
The victory improves the Sixers to 6-7 on the road and 19-7 overall. They've won 12 of their last 14. They’ll be right back at it again Friday night as they host JJ Redick and the Pelicans at the Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m./NBCSP).
Here are observations from the win:
A different Embiid
Whether it was Embiid taking heed of the national criticism or not, the All-Star center did play with a different energy. Like many before them, the Celtics double teamed him at just about every opportunity early. As the game went on, they gave him more 1-on-1 looks against Enes Kanter with mixed results.
To Embiid’s credit, he wasn’t forcing things. He did well to be patient, getting himself baskets and finding cutters and shooters with regularity. He also didn’t have a turnover in the first half and had just two for the game.
One thing that seemed to help Embiid a bit were his minutes with Josh Richardson. Richardson, playing just his second game since missing the previous six, is one of the few Sixers that can create off the dribble and also hit outside shots. The pick-and-roll pairing is developing. You also saw a little of the “snug” action — a pick-and-roll initiated in the post — with Embiid and Simmons. Give Brett Brown credit for trying to get his “crown jewel” in different actions and trying to get him different looks.
With 4:04 left in the game, Embiid buried a three to give the Sixers a 100-92 lead and got fired up afterward. It sure looked like he was having fun out there as he finished with a season-high 38 points (12 of 21), 13 rebounds and six assists. He also had a nasty block on Daniel Theis which essentially sealed the game.
It’s not how you start …
As we’ve seen over the years, Brown likes to keep certain players together and doesn’t use typical substitution patterns. The duo of Simmons and Harris had a tough first half.
Harris went just 3 of 11 in the first half, but he kept the aggressive mentality he’s shown lately. He attacked his mismatches, posting up Boston’s smaller players and taking their bigs off the dribble. He hit 7 of his 9 shots after halftime. He finished 10 of 20 overall for 23 points and also added eight rebounds, seven assists and two blocks.
It was a rough start for Simmons. He committed two early turnovers as the Celtics had a clear plan to clog the paint. The Sixers shot the ball well from three in the first half (9 of 17) and that did help open things up a bit for Simmons. Like Harris, Simmons did have a couple post ups to take advantage of smaller players. The Sixers playing better defense in the second helped Simmons push the pace a bit more, as well. Still, this was another lackluster game from Simmons offensively. He finished with just seven points and had six assists but five turnovers.
Simmons has been excellent on the defensive end this season but did have trouble with the slippery Kemba Walker in the first half. The All-Star guard has always given the Sixers fits and that’s part of the reason Simmons picked up three fouls and sat out the last 2:36 of the first half. Much like the rest of the Sixers, his defense went up a notch in the second half. Walker went just 1 of 8 after halftime after shooting 7 of 13 in the first.
Defense finds its legs after halftime
In the first half, the Sixers’ defense was not at the level it’s been recently. They came into the game as the fourth-best rated defensive team in the league and were coming off a game in which they gave up just 92 points to the Nuggets.
Thursday night was a different story at the start. Boston was simply beating the Sixers off the dribble and punishing them with middle pick-and-rolls. That allowed the Celtics to shoot 53.3 percent from the field and to hold a 32-22 advantage in the paint. That gap closed to 48-44 by the end of the game
The Sixers did make adjustments as it appeared they switched more on the perimeter and the five man hedged a little harder. Boston scored just 21 points in the third and the Sixers came away with several timely defensive stands down the stretch.
Though Richardson was still on a minutes restriction, he showed you his value by chasing Walker the most effectively and being disruptive on that end.
Thybulle can shoot on the road
It was an interesting night for Matisse Thybulle. The rookie, who was actually selected by the Celtics before a draft-night trade made him a Sixer, also had his struggles with Walker early. Thybulle played Walker tough in the season opener but seemed to have issues navigating screens, something he generally does extremely well. Like Simmons, his defense against Walker improved.
When tasked with guarding Jaylen Brown, Thybulle did quite well. He frustrated Brown, who tried to bully the rookie in the post. Instead, Thybulle poked the ball away for a turnover and then drew an offensive foul. Thybulle had a steal and two blocks on the night.
On the offensive end, Thybulle evened his home/road shooting splits. He’d shot the three significantly better at home (20 of 30) than on the road (5 of 24) but went 2 of 4 Thursday. It’s a good sign that the 22-year-old appears to be improving as a shooter and that those splits may just be a coincidence.
With Horford out, Mike Scott got the start and gave the Sixers much-needed shooting. He was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Embiid drawing so much attention. He made his first four shots from the outside and finished 5 of 7 from three.
Scott was mired in a 1-of-16 slump until Brown inserted him into the starting lineup against the Cavaliers last Saturday. Since then, he’s 7 of 15.
Kyle O'Quinn, who got the backup five minutes in place of Horford, had his struggles. He finished a minus-15.
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