3 observations after Sixers ride early blitz to win over Celtics


The Sixers seized control early and cruised to victory Friday night at Wells Fargo Center, earning a 111-99 win over the Celtics and improving to 24-17.

Joel Embiid's streak of games with 30 or more points ended at eight, tied with Wilt Chamberlain and Allen Iverson for most in Sixers history. He recorded 25 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.

Tyrese Maxey scored 23 points. Seth Curry and Tobias Harris posted 17 apiece. 

Jayson Tatum had 20 points and Jaylen Brown scored 21. 

Danny Green (right hip pain) and Shake Milton (back contusion) were out for the Sixers. Celtics guard Marcus Smart (health and safety protocols) was also sidelined.

It was Milton’s fourth straight absence, and Sixers head coach Doc Rivers indicated pregame that a return is not at all imminent. 

“This seems like it’s pretty significant — not surgical — but he’s still really struggling,” Rivers said. “I don’t foresee him back anytime soon. The fact that I could probably beat him in a race today would tell me he’s a long way away.”

The Sixers will travel to Miami and face the Heat on Saturday night. Here are observations on their win over the Celtics: 

Sixers blitz Boston early 

Al Horford played his first game in Philadelphia since March 11, 2020. The NBA suspended its season that night because of COVID-19 minutes after a Sixers win over the Pistons.

Horford heard hearty boos during starting lineup introductions and then opened the game well, scoring Boston’s first five points on a catch-and-shoot three-pointer and basket inside on Harris. He also assisted Tatum for a three that gave the Celtics an 8-2 edge. 


The Sixers responded very nicely, though, avoiding the kind of rough start and subsequent uphill climb that’s plagued them often at home this season. Maxey made two threes in a 30-4 run that also included a transition Curry triple, an elegant Embiid fadeaway, a fast-break Furkan Korkmaz and-one, and lots of missed Celtics jumpers. 

In general, the Sixers have been more careful and deliberate this season without Ben Simmons-led transition offense. They benefited Friday from how well they took care of the ball and, thanks in part to poor decision-making from Tatum, also got ample open-floor chances by forcing giveaways. Leading into Friday’s game, the Sixers ranked 14th in defensive turnover percentage after finishing third last season, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s a statistic worth tracking, since creating turnovers and not having to lean as much on half-court offense would be big for the current version of this team. 

Thybulle in the middle of everything 

Matisse Thybulle (eight points, five steals, two blocks) drew the Tatum assignment, although the Sixers caught a break when Tatum picked up his second foul with 5:57 left in the first quarter for reaching in on Embiid in the backcourt. 

Thybulle displayed his special defensive talents early with two steals and a block of a Brown three. A confrontation with former teammate Josh Richardson was far less typical.

Richardson was called for a Flagrant 1 foul, while Thybulle and Grant Williams were each assessed technicals. Thybulle is usually good-natured and focused on the task at hand, but he was clearly fired up Friday night.

Tatum was whistled for a technical of his own following a second-quarter air ball. To add to Tatum’s frustration, he became entangled with Thybulle and was called for an offensive foul with 52.1 seconds left in the second. Boston’s offense lacked movement and direction, and it seemed unlikely during the Sixers’ extended run that the Celtics could find any good shots unless Tatum pulled off something heroic. With Thybulle tracking him, he didn’t have much success.

In a 35-point first half, the Celtics shot 30.8 percent from the floor and had six assists and 11 turnovers. The Sixers held a 7-0 advantage in steals. 

Maxey began the game guarding the much taller Brown, though the Sixers unsurprisingly switched ball screens involving the Boston forward. With Embiid protecting the rim and the Celtics’ stars settling for perimeter shots, the Sixers’ lack of size at guard wasn’t a problem. Thybulle’s knack for chewing up space and scrambling out to shooters helped a ton, too.  

He fortunately was fine to stay in the game following a hard, scary fall in the third quarter. After a Thybulle steal, he sprinted down the floor for a dunk and was touched in the back by Dennis Schroder on his way up. Thybulle lost his balance and crashed to the ground, though Schroder’s mild contact didn’t appear to be malicious. The officials reviewed the play and assessed Schroder a Flagrant 1. 


Thybulle was later ruled out for the night with right shoulder soreness.

“You can tell he loves these type of matchups," Embiid said. “You go back to the Steph (Curry) one. And all year, really. We’ve played Boston now three times. (Tatum) has really struggled against him.

“He has length and he’s athletic — getting into passing lanes, able to recover. That’s huge. Every team needs that. And I always tell him to be as aggressive as he wants, because I’m back there and I’m going to cover anything. So hopefully he’s OK and we can keep on winning games.”

Zone doesn’t derail Sixers 

With hardly anything working for his team, Boston head coach Ime Udoka decided to use a zone defense beginning in the middle of the second period. 

It bothered the Sixers at times, though not enough for the Celtics to ever make a serious dent in their deficit. The Sixers put Embiid at different floor spots against the zone, including the top of the key and the high post. 

At this point, it’s reasonable to expect good things to happen when Embiid touches the ball regardless of the opponent’s defensive scheme. The Sixers have sometimes neglected that concept when they see zone, though, dishing the ball around the perimeter and seeking threes instead of ensuring their best player gets it. There’s no such thing as feeding Embiid too much. 

“It was average," Rivers said of his team's play against the zone. “We’ll see more tomorrow, a better zone. But I wasn’t concerned with it tonight. We moved the ball, we got good shots. I want Joel more involved in it than he was tonight, but we had a big lead. You can’t (look too much) at zones when you’ve got a 20-point lead. You play a little different, if you know what I’m saying.”

Boston also tried some full-court pressure after halftime. While that did occasionally disrupt ball handlers and prevent the Sixers from easily getting into sets, the team’s level of play never drastically dropped off. Udoka subbed out his starters early in the fourth and Maxey drained three more long balls. He finished 5 for 7 from three-point range.

“I just try to shoot every day," Maxey said. “Shoot when I’m open now. Everyone’s been on me about pump faking, running into floaters, shooting contested twos instead of trusting my work. So I just want to keep shooting when I’m open and try to make plays for others, as well.”

Embiid nearly picked up a major highlight with an attempted fourth-quarter dunk over Aaron Nesmith. He narrowly missed a monstrous slam, although a make wouldn't have counted anyway, since the Celtics challenged successfully and the play was deemed an offensive foul.