The season after failing to win a single playoff game in their first-round series against the Celtics, the Sixers earned a regular-season series sweep of Boston.
They won their third and final contest against the Celtics Tuesday night at TD Garden, 106-96, to move to 35-16 and start their four-game road trip with a victory. The Pelicans are up next Friday night.
Joel Embiid had 35 points (9 for 19 from the floor, 16 for 20 from the foul line) and six rebounds. He scored 115 points this season against Boston on 53 field-goal attempts.
Ben Simmons recorded 12 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals.
Here are three observations on the Sixers’ win:
Embiid too good for interesting mix of defenders
Embiid scored the Sixers’ first four points and eight of their first 13.
Robert Williams picked up two quick fouls, which wasn’t positive news for Boston trade-deadline acquisition Luke Kornet or the Celtics in general. With Tristan Thompson (post health and safety protocols reconditioning) out, Boston had little frontcourt depth, although Embiid’s 80 total points in the season’s opening two Sixers-Celtics games suggests Thompson wouldn’t have magically neutralized him.
The first look Embiid got at Kornet, he faced up on the left wing, drove baseline before an oncoming double team could have an impact and slammed in a dunk. Kornet did present a pick-and-pop threat on the other end of the floor and knocked down two three-pointers, but the Sixers as a team showed good energy and focus defensively throughout the game.
“I just thought we really locked in," head coach Doc Rivers said. “They have three dynamic scorers — they really do. I thought overall we just locked in and guarded each one individually. I thought tonight, as good as our team defense was, I thought we had great individual defensive performances by a lot of guys.”
Matisse Thybulle played eight straight minutes after early foul trouble for Danny Green. His presence never hurts on defense.
Tacko Fall, a 7-foot-5 Celtics fan favorite, entered late in the second quarter. Embiid immediately demanded the ball and drew a foul on a mid-range jumper. Fall ended up being more effective than some of the Celtics’ other options against Embiid, though, since Embiid missed a few of the jumpers he knew would be available against the less agile Fall and was 1 for 5 overall behind the arc.
There were other signs of Embiid being a bit below his best (which is remarkable for a player who scored 35 points) as he reintegrates following a 10-game absence with a left knee bone bruise. He turned it over in the first quarter trying to rifle a difficult pass to Simmons in the paint, and he had another giveaway in the second that stemmed from an out-of-sync two-man game with Seth Curry.
Still, it was encouraging that Embiid played the first 10:28 and looked like a great bet to score whenever he had time and space.
“He had great rhythm today," Rivers said. “And I thought he was very patient, too. I thought our passing when they doubled was fantastic. It almost was a pick-your-poison spot, and that’s where we want Joel to be.”
Simmons attacks during pivotal run
Simmons started 0 for 4 from the foul line, an inauspicious sign for a player whose offensive efficiency has dipped after the All-Star break.
He made his first two field goals, though, a righty jump hook over Jaylen Brown and a tricky reverse layup with his right hand. The 24-year-old didn’t shy away from contact at the rim either, finishing the game 4 for 8 at the charity stripe.
When the Celtics cut the Sixers’ lead down to 10 points in the third quarter, Simmons scored six points during an 11-0 run. He also created two free throws for Embiid as the duo ran a deliberate snug pick-and-roll that eventually enabled Embiid to seal deep in the paint.
“I like it organically. ... I do like it in that flow," Rivers said. “I thought the one in the second half … was probably the best one we’ve run the entire year because of the patience. Joel was going to come. He let Ben get deeper, and then Joel was playing the game, and then he went. I told them coming off, I said, ‘That was the best one. That’s how you have to run that.’ I thought they did a great job. And Ben came off with pace; that’s the other key to that.”
Even if Rivers is unconcerned with Simmons’ scoring, we imagine he’d be pleased if those stretches of aggressive, game-changing offense from his All-Star facilitator were more regular.
Simmons was the primary defender on Jayson Tatum, who was out for the two January meetings between the Sixers and Celtics after testing positive for COVID-19. The Celtics sought out opportunities to screen Simmons and force the Sixers to switch another defender onto Tatum, but it wasn’t very effective. Tatum scored 20 points on 7-for-17 shooting.
Green fires away from the corners
Green made all four three-pointers he attempted in the first half, while his teammates were 2 for 10. His first-half scoring helped compensate for an off night by Tobias Harris, who was guarded well by Brown in the post and had 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting.
When Green puts up a corner three, the Sixers should feel confident. He entered Tuesday’s game 66 for 152 (43.4 percent) on those shots, per Cleaning the Glass. Given how much attention Embiid, Simmons and Harris draw, it’s very valuable to have a player who knocks that shot down consistently.
The Sixers’ opening-night starters continue to look strong on the nights when they’re all able to play together, and it’s clear Green is a key component.
Questions remain about how the playoff rotation will shake out, what pairings the Sixers will trust and who will close games. Rivers’ comments before the game about George Hill indicate that the uncertainty will linger for a while. Hill had surgery on Feb. 2 to address a mallet finger injury on his right thumb. Rivers knows from experience what the recovery process is like for that injury.
“He’s not playing yet, but he’s on the trip,” Rivers said. “He shot today. There’s no timetable that I know of, to be honest. I can’t see it any time soon, honestly, just with that injury. I had that same injury. That’s not anything you mess around with. Just one whack, you may not get injured but the pain is excruciating, because your nerves are so raw. We’re going to try to be as tentative as possible with this injury.”