Joel Embiid didn’t join the Sixers for their latest road trip because of right knee pain. He was back for Wednesday’s matchup against the Celtics at Wells Fargo Center, though, and the Sixers were surely thrilled he was available.
Embiid led the Sixers to a 117-109 win, scoring 42 points on 19 field-goal attempts, grabbing 10 rebounds and helping the team improve to 10-5 with another MVP-level performance.
Seth Curry has cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols but did not play Wednesday as he regains his conditioning after testing positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 7. All players who test positive for COVID-19 are not permitted to exercise for at least 10 days, according to the league’s protocols. Celtics star Jayson Tatum may be able to return for the finale of this mini-series on Friday as he makes progress after reportedly testing positive for COVID-19.
Here are observations on the Sixers’ win Wednesday:
Embiid too much to handle
Embiid looked sharp, healthy and impossible to effectively defend.
The Sixers had success early on using him at the left elbow region and in pick-and-pops at the top of the key, more difficult spots for the Celtics to double team him than on the low block.
That's been a trend recently with Embiid, and he's enjoyed being able to play in a variety of locations.
“It’s hard to guard," he said. "Teams, they still double and triple me — even more this year. Every year they keep doing the same things and it gets harder if I’ve got to catch the ball on the block every single time. That’s an easy place to double. I’ve been working on my game to extend it, and also not just play like a big man — also play like a guard, being able to dribble through traffic and shoot fadeaways or pull-up jumpers.
"Playing out of 'Delay' actions, that’s good for me, because how are you going to double that? It’s hard to double from the middle of the floor, and if you double, we’ve got way too many good shooters for me to kick it out, and (they’ll) make the shot. So, there’s a lot of freedom. I get to be myself in that offense. ... Especially if I know they’re double teaming or triple teaming me, I can attack in a different style. I’m just taking advantage of it."
Boston certainly didn’t mind double teaming Embiid, and the Sixers were also perfectly happy to post him up. There was a nice sequence for the Sixers in the second quarter when Embiid earned position near the left block, drew help and made the simple pass out of it, and eventually watched Shake Milton sink a three on the other side of the floor. A cross-court assist to Danny Green in the third quarter was another Embiid passing highlight that demonstrated his knack this season for executing on both basic and sophisticated reads from the post.
“I love how he played tonight, because he kind of let it come to him with 40 (points)," head coach Doc Rivers said. "That’s hard to do. But every time they double teamed, he made the pass. Every time they didn’t, he attacked. I thought early on they wanted to double team, and we got those two threes off of his passes. They got out of it, he starts scoring, they double team again and we get another three. I (think) that kind of balance from your team is good, and I love that he’s trusting that.”
Embiid is elite at creating free throws and showed it against another opponent not equipped to stop him, making 17 of 21. That skill was especially important when the Sixers went on an extended second-quarter drought without a field goal. Embiid’s health is paramount for the Sixers, and the team’s 0-3 record without him this season isn’t necessary to illustrate that obvious fact. That said, give Dwight Howard credit for being a nuisance to the Celtics and recording six offensive rebounds.
According to Embiid, the veteran big man been impactful off the floor, too.
“ … Dwight, despite what you (heard) about him in the past — when he came to the team I could’ve never thought that whatever I heard was true," Embiid said. "He’s a great teammate, probably one of the best that I’ve ever had — always great energy, always smiling, uplifting to everybody."
In contrast to Embiid, Ben Simmons’ scoring could again be described as modest. The 24-year-old didn’t make a field goal until a steal on Jeff Teague and ensuing transition slam early in the third period. He picked up his fifth foul late in the third quarter and finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
While Simmons attacked the rim well on several occasions when he sensed an opening and shot 7 for 10 from the foul line, a 17-point output on Jan. 6 against the Wizards is still his high for the season. Simmons obviously contributes in many ways besides scoring and should benefit when Curry does return.
Rivers recognized the value of Simmons' versatile, high-level defense in this game and appreciated that he maintained his aggression while playing with five fouls late in the fourth period.
“I thought Ben was unbelievable — defensively, first of all," Rivers said. "We put him on Kemba (Walker) tonight, we put him on Jaylen Brown tonight, we put him on Marcus Smart. It’s amazing what he can do for us, and tonight was a great example of that.”
Tobias Harris (22 points on 9-for-17 shooting) provided some necessary offensive impetus at key moments, scoring seven straight points when the Sixers fell behind 12-4 and helping the team retake the lead early in the fourth quarter in a lineup with four bench players.
Korkmaz’s return and the impact on Sixers’ bench
Furkan Korkmaz returned Wednesday after missing over three weeks because of a left adductor strain, posting seven points in 19 minutes, including a stylish reverse dunk. Isaiah Joe was the odd man out as Milton, Howard, Matisse Thybulle and Korkmaz were the only second-unit Sixers to appear.
Asked about Joe before the game, Rivers noted he’s not the only shotmaker on the Sixers.
“He’s a guy that can make shots but so can Shake, so can Furkan, so can Danny Green, so can Seth Curry,” Rivers said. “He’s just in a line of guys that we have. It’s a great luxury. It’s a great luxury to have a guy that can come off the bench and make shots. You know what else? I thought he showed himself to be a solid defender, as well, which will help moving forward.”
Since playing 45 minutes for the seven-man Sixers on Jan. 9, Joe shot 17 of 39 (43.6 percent) from three-point range. We assume he’ll get another opportunity soon enough, whether it comes from another player’s injury or Rivers’ deciding at some stage to split his minutes with Korkmaz or Thybulle. As Rivers mentioned, the rookie wing has looked savvy and prideful defensively, qualities that should boost his case to play even if his jumper isn’t falling.
A defensive question
Tyrese Maxey drew the initial assignment on Walker. The rookie didn’t have an auspicious start as Walker, in his second game back after missing the beginning of this season with a left knee injury, drained two early pull-up three-pointers. Thybulle bothered Walker a bit in the second quarter with his length, constant activity and disruptive rearview contests, but Walker managed to make two more long-range jumpers.
The Sixers were fortunate that Walker (19 points) only played 22 minutes because of Boston's plan to ease him back into action, and that he cooled off, shooting 1 for 7 after halftime.
Though the Sixers didn’t have their big men drop far back against Walker, they also weren’t willing to regularly blitz him or otherwise force the ball from the four-time All-Star’s hands. In a future playoff series, would they play more aggressive pick-and-roll defense against him? We won’t get an answer to that question anytime soon, though we’ll be watching for adjustments in the finale of this mini-series.
In terms of the holistic defensive effort, Rivers liked seeing the Sixers hold Boston to 17 points and 1-for-9 shooting from three-point range in the fourth quarter.
“I thought the starters came in defensively, we ran them off the three, we pushed them inside the three-point line, but we didn’t give them easy twos," he said. "Lot of deflections, I thought we got our hands on the ball. It was a really (well-played), hard-played game by both teams.”