BOSTON — That is certainly not how the Sixers wanted to head into the trade deadline.
They dropped their second straight game and fell four games behind the top-seeded Celtics on Wednesday night with a 106-99 loss to Boston at TD Garden.
“I just thought our defensive discipline the entire night was just poor," Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said. “Our offensive movement was poor. And I think when you play that way, you probably should lose the game.”
Joel Embiid scored 28 points, James Harden 26.
Malcom Brogdon and Derrick White led Boston in scoring with 19 points apiece.
The deadline is Thursday at 3 p.m. ET. The Sixers will then play a back-to-back against two New York opponents — Friday vs. the Knicks and Saturday at the Nets.
Here are observations on their defeat in Boston:
Not your average start
There was plenty of “Don’t see that every night” action in the opening minutes.
Harden banked in a mid-range jumper to give the Sixers a 7-0 lead. He also hit a more conventional jumper in the first quarter and knocked down two free throws to pass Dirk Nowitzki for seventh on the NBA’s all-time made foul shots list.
Blake Griffin scored nine of Boston’s first 11 points and did so exclusively from three-point range. Prior to Wednesday, Griffin had gone 9 for 28 on threes all season. He started because Al Horford (right knee swelling) and Rob Williams (left ankle sprain) were both out.
Grant Williams guarded Embiid and the Celtics sent double teams whenever feasible. Williams is an intelligent, dogged defender, but those qualities didn’t yield great results early. Embiid played the whole first period and scored 14 of the Sixers’ 27 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
Luke Kornet was next up on Embiid, who was happy to take the unbothered jumpers available in that matchup. The Sixers’ spacing around their stars wasn’t always crisp, but the Celtics’ early turnovers helped in terms of the team not needing to grind out half-court bucket after bucket.
Embiid not a fan of officiating
One downside for Embiid was that the officials tended to stay silent on borderline foul calls.
That contributed to Embiid’s second stint being worse than his first. He was frustrated when he missed a jumper and Williams’ contact was deemed legal. The Celtics’ lead soon grew to 12 points on a Jayson Tatum triple. Boston began 9 for 16 from three, while the Sixers started just 2 for 10.
As far as tolerating complaints, the officials were less lenient. Embiid was assessed a technical foul with 3:30 left in the second quarter after scoring inside through Williams and making sure everyone knew he felt he’d been fouled again.
Thirty-nine seconds later, Embiid got the and-one he’d desired by rolling hard off of a pick-and-roll with Harden and tossing in an over-the-shoulder make. The Sixers threw a couple of effective blitzes at Tatum, Harden finished the second quarter well, and the Sixers only trailed by four at halftime. Jaylen Brown’s night ended with 1:27 remaining in the second after he suffered a facial contusion and was officially ruled out at halftime. Brogdon replaced him as a second-half starter.
Boston benefited from a giant edge beyond the arc (19 made threes on a 52.6 percent clip to the Sixers' 10), but the full-strength Sixers will still feel they should've beaten a team missing several key players. Instead, the best they can do in the season series now is splitting by winning both games in Philadelphia.
“I just never thought we had a lot of zip the entire night," Rivers said. “Played flat the entire night. We had wide-open shots all night but didn’t make them. But that can’t be a factor. You’re going to have games like that. I really didn’t think we played with the right spirit the entire night to win the game.”
Turning to Thybulle in fourth
Rivers did not roll out all-bench lineups or give his second-unit players tons of important minutes.
Still, though it was not as extreme as Sunday’s loss to the Knicks, the Sixers’ bench was again not a team strength through three quarters. Boston had a 41-21 total bench scoring advantage in the game. A seriously off Tyrese Maxey game (3 for 14 from the floor) obviously hurt matters.
Before the fourth quarter, Matisse Thybulle had played just 90 seconds and committed two fouls. Rivers switched things up rather dramatically with the Sixers desperate for a momentum swing, and the team looked dangerous at times with Thybulle defending Tatum and the collective defensive activity elevated. Rivers preferred Thybulle over Tobias Harris, who, like Maxey, had a nightmarish shooting performance. Harris scored just four points and missed eight of his 10 field goals.
Thybulle wound up playing over eight straight minutes and made a three that cut the Sixers' deficit to 98-94. We shall see whether or not he remains a Sixer through the deadline.
“I thought he played well," Rivers said of Thybulle. “I thought he earned it. Tough lineup offensively for us. We had PJ (Tucker) in and Matisse in, but they made a run for us with their defense. We got enough stops in that stretch, but we just couldn’t score the bucket in that stretch either. That was good ... and he made one of the shots for us; he made a three.”
White came through with several tremendous plays, which was a huge factor in compensating for Tatum's subpar production and Boston's injuries. He had a crowd-thrilling recovery block on Harris, drained a pivotal three over Harden, and helped give the Celtics a very good win.
Meanwhile, the Sixers are on a losing streak for the first time since late December.
“It’s very disappointing, very frustrating, especially coming off of the way we played in New York," Harden said. “It was an opportunity for us to have a good bounce-back game and we didn’t do it."