There’s no point in pretending Monday night’s game between the Sixers and Celtics at TD Garden was business as usual. If you tried, it likely wouldn’t be very convincing.
What felt most familiar was Joel Embiid's dominance. He recorded 41 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in the shorthanded Sixers' 108-103 win over the shorthanded Celtics.
Seth Curry scored 26 points and Tobias Harris posted 25. Jaylen Brown had a team-high 30 for Boston.
Seven Celtics missed Monday’s game because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols, among them former Sixers Al Horford and Josh Richardson.
Georges Niang, Shake Milton and Andre Drummond are in the league’s protocols, too. The Sixers were also without Tyrese Maxey (left quad contusion), Furkan Korkmaz (non-COVID illness), Jaden Springer (concussion protocol) and Ben Simmons (personal reasons). The team is expected to sign Tyler Johnson to a 10-day contract, but that deal was not official before Sixers-Celtics tipped off.
The 16-15 Sixers’ next scheduled game is Thursday night against the Hawks. Here are observations on the team's gutsy win over Boston:
Carrying a giant scoring load
Both Embiid and Harris began the night by shrugging off recent 3-for-17 shooting games.
Harris, who’d had a dreadful showing Thursday when the Sixers lost to the Nets, scored the game’s first five points. Embiid, whose Dec. 1 outing against Boston was his worst shooting performance of the season, converted an early three-pointer and a mid-range jumper on Enes Freedom.
Curry started at point guard and was excellent offensively. He kept the game simple, whether that meant hitting Embiid in the post or making the right plays out of pick-and-rolls. His jumpers were falling, too, and Curry had no trouble getting them up because of his creativity and flair off the dribble.
Though Curry’s default response when asked about his ball handling ability is to casually note it’s nothing new, he does appear more comfortable than ever at weaponizing the threat of his shot and stepping into mid-range tries. Curry’s far more than a shooter and keeps showing it.
The Embiid-Harris-Curry trio combined for 46 of the Sixers’ 51 first-half points, a number that was hard to believe even given the odd circumstances. The statistics did not become much less extreme after halftime as the Sixers continued relying on their three main healthy shot creators.
The Embiid versus Freedom matchup was heavily tilted in the four-time All-Star’s favor. He managed to find just about any shot he wanted against single coverage and it was surprising that Boston didn’t send more double teams, especially as Embiid thrived in the fourth quarter.
Thybulle and Green team up
Instead of choosing between Matisse Thybulle and Danny Green, Sixers head coach Doc Rivers went with that duo as his starting wings.
While Rivers seems to typically view it as an either-or proposition, the idea of playing that pair together should hold some appeal. Per Cleaning the Glass, Thybulle-Green lineups had a plus-14.7 net rating last season and entered Monday’s game with a plus-55.0 net rating this year in a tiny sample size.
The Sixers’ starters took a 19-13 lead and Thybulle got two dunks in the first half with clever cuts. Green’s shots didn’t drop, though the Sixers defended Jayson Tatum and Brown well overall for the majority of the game. The team scrambled effectively, limited Boston’s good three-point looks and leaned on Thybulle’s individual talent.
Thybulle was called for his fourth personal foul with 2:03 left in the third quarter, then assessed a technical for arguing that he’d cleanly swiped the ball from Tatum. While Thybulle finished with 32 minutes, the Sixers' other four starters all played at least 40.
Thybulle was incredulous when Marcus Smart rushed into him and drew the sixth foul on the Sixers' 24-year-old wing with 2:20 remaining in the game.
Rivers challenged the call, likely feeling Smart had embellished the contact. He undoubtedly had, but the call stood and Thybulle fouled out. However, Smart, who'd extended his left arm and struck Thybulle, was given a technical. A Harris free throw cut the Celtics' lead to 97-96.
Green knocked down a go-ahead three-pointer with 1:43 to go and Embiid got the Sixers across the finish line with three massive mid-range jumpers. Not the first time he's saved the day this season.
Embiid's only clutch stumble was a missed foul shot with 3.9 seconds left, but he put the Sixers up three with his next free throw and then picked off Smart's heave on the ensuing inbounds play.
An unlikely debut and tough task for bench
The Sixers were short on ball handling (and depth in general) behind Curry.
Seton Hall product Myles Powell made his NBA debut, completing a whirlwind few days that included his first G League game of the year Friday night in Delaware and an appearance Sunday at the G League Showcase in Las Vegas. He didn’t take long to demonstrate his self-confidence as a scorer, trying and missing a step-back three-point attempt over Tatum.
Powell (zero points on 0-for-2 shooting in eight minutes) displayed decent defensive energy in his first-half playing time, though he allowed Payton Pritchard to find space behind a ball screen and drain a long-range jumper.
Any expectations that he’d make a dramatic impact in Game 1 would’ve been unrealistic. While it will be interesting to see what Powell can do if more NBA opportunities come his way, we imagine Rivers would prefer Johnson’s veteran presence over Powell if forced into such a choice.
Second-year wing Isaiah Joe was the only member of the Sixers’ bench without G League experience this season. Rivers opted against using Paul Reed, preferring to employ Harris with a makeshift second unit that also included rookies Charles Bassey and Aaron Henry. While Reed tends to be an intriguing player to watch, all-bench lineups would absolutely not have been advisable Monday night.
Boston’s bench finished with an 18-1 scoring advantage over the Sixers’. Pritchard’s 14 points, four of which came on back-to-back jumpers in the fourth quarter, were big ones.
It's rare to earn a win with one bench point. The ultimate difference Monday is one team had Embiid and the other did not.