Ben Simmons

Joel Embiid dominates, Tobias Harris comes alive in second as Sixers down Celtics

Joel Embiid dominates, Tobias Harris comes alive in second as Sixers down Celtics

BOX SCORE

Joel Embiid said Tuesday night that he hasn't been having fun this season. It looked like he was having a blast at TD Garden Thursday.

In what was easily Embiid's finest game of the season, the Sixers ramped up their defense in the second half to beat the Celtics, 115-109.

Al Horford did not play against his former team as he's dealing with left knee soreness and left hamstring tightness.

Embiid was his dominant self and Tobias Harris had an outstanding second half in helping give Boston its first home loss of the season. The Sixers also did well to hold Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to a combined 8 of 27.

The victory improves the Sixers to 6-7 on the road and 19-7 overall. They've won 12 of their last 14. They’ll be right back at it again Friday night as they host JJ Redick and the Pelicans at the Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations from the win:

A different Embiid

Whether it was Embiid taking heed of the national criticism or not, the All-Star center did play with a different energy. Like many before them, the Celtics double teamed him at just about every opportunity early. As the game went on, they gave him more 1-on-1 looks against Enes Kanter with mixed results.

To Embiid’s credit, he wasn’t forcing things. He did well to be patient, getting himself baskets and finding cutters and shooters with regularity. He also didn’t have a turnover in the first half and had just two for the game. 

One thing that seemed to help Embiid a bit were his minutes with Josh Richardson. Richardson, playing just his second game since missing the previous six, is one of the few Sixers that can create off the dribble and also hit outside shots. The pick-and-roll pairing is developing. You also saw a little of the “snug” action — a pick-and-roll initiated in the post — with Embiid and Simmons. Give Brett Brown credit for trying to get his “crown jewel” in different actions and trying to get him different looks.

With 4:04 left in the game, Embiid buried a three to give the Sixers a 100-92 lead and got fired up afterward. It sure looked like he was having fun out there as he finished with a season-high 38 points (12 of 21), 13 rebounds and six assists. He also had a nasty block on Daniel Theis which essentially sealed the game.

It’s not how you start …

As we’ve seen over the years, Brown likes to keep certain players together and doesn’t use typical substitution patterns. The duo of Simmons and Harris had a tough first half.

Harris went just 3 of 11 in the first half, but he kept the aggressive mentality he’s shown lately. He attacked his mismatches, posting up Boston’s smaller players and taking their bigs off the dribble. He hit 7 of his 9 shots after halftime. He finished 10 of 20 overall for 23 points and also added eight rebounds, seven assists and two blocks.

It was a rough start for Simmons. He committed two early turnovers as the Celtics had a clear plan to clog the paint. The Sixers shot the ball well from three in the first half (9 of 17) and that did help open things up a bit for Simmons. Like Harris, Simmons did have a couple post ups to take advantage of smaller players. The Sixers playing better defense in the second helped Simmons push the pace a bit more, as well. Still, this was another lackluster game from Simmons offensively. He finished with just seven points and had six assists but five turnovers.

Simmons has been excellent on the defensive end this season but did have trouble with the slippery Kemba Walker in the first half. The All-Star guard has always given the Sixers fits and that’s part of the reason Simmons picked up three fouls and sat out the last 2:36 of the first half. Much like the rest of the Sixers, his defense went up a notch in the second half. Walker went just 1 of 8 after halftime after shooting 7 of 13 in the first.

Defense finds its legs after halftime

In the first half, the Sixers’ defense was not at the level it’s been recently. They came into the game as the fourth-best rated defensive team in the league and were coming off a game in which they gave up just 92 points to the Nuggets.

Thursday night was a different story at the start. Boston was simply beating the Sixers off the dribble and punishing them with middle pick-and-rolls. That allowed the Celtics to shoot 53.3 percent from the field and to hold a 32-22 advantage in the paint. That gap closed to 48-44 by the end of the game

The Sixers did make adjustments as it appeared they switched more on the perimeter and the five man hedged a little harder. Boston scored just 21 points in the third and the Sixers came away with several timely defensive stands down the stretch.

Though Richardson was still on a minutes restriction, he showed you his value by chasing Walker the most effectively and being disruptive on that end.

Thybulle can shoot on the road

It was an interesting night for Matisse Thybulle. The rookie, who was actually selected by the Celtics before a draft-night trade made him a Sixer, also had his struggles with Walker early. Thybulle played Walker tough in the season opener but seemed to have issues navigating screens, something he generally does extremely well. Like Simmons, his defense against Walker improved.

When tasked with guarding Jaylen Brown, Thybulle did quite well. He frustrated Brown, who tried to bully the rookie in the post. Instead, Thybulle poked the ball away for a turnover and then drew an offensive foul. Thybulle had a steal and two blocks on the night.

On the offensive end, Thybulle evened his home/road shooting splits. He’d shot the three significantly better at home (20 of 30) than on the road (5 of 24) but went 2 of 4 Thursday. It’s a good sign that the 22-year-old appears to be improving as a shooter and that those splits may just be a coincidence.

Great Scott

With Horford out, Mike Scott got the start and gave the Sixers much-needed shooting. He was perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Embiid drawing so much attention. He made his first four shots from the outside and finished 5 of 7 from three.

Scott was mired in a 1-of-16 slump until Brown inserted him into the starting lineup against the Cavaliers last Saturday. Since then, he’s 7 of 15.

Kyle O'Quinn, who got the backup five minutes in place of Horford, had his struggles. He finished a minus-15.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

Sixers vs. Nuggets: 3 storylines to watch and how to follow the game

Sixers vs. Nuggets: 3 storylines to watch and how to follow the game

Updated: 7:30 p.m.

The 17-7 Sixers will try to maintain perfection at home Tuesday night and earn their 13th win of the season at Wells Fargo Center when they play the 14-7 Nuggets, who have lost four of their past five games.

Here are the essentials: 

When: 8 p.m. ET 
Where: Wells Fargo Center
Broadcast: TNT
Live stats: Follow here 

And here are three storylines to watch: 

Fourth-quarter offensive woes 

The fourth quarter of the Sixers’ Nov. 8 loss in Denver was their worst of the season. They were outscored 35-13, struggled to create everything they got on offense and saw Nikola Jokic nail a go-ahead jumper with 1.2 seconds left and Josh Richardson in his face at the end of a broken play. To make things more painful, the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report deemed that, on the ensuing possession, the offensive foul call on Joel Embiid actually should have been a foul on Jokic.

Though that particular fourth period was especially bad, it hasn’t been a productive quarter for the Sixers’ offense overall this season. The team has a 102.9 fourth-quarter offensive rating, which is third-worst in the NBA, and allowed the Raptors to make the end of Sunday night’s game a turnover-filled farce, coughing it up seven times in the final 4:14. 

“Where do we begin? Some of the passing decisions, it's stuff you’ve just got to get better with,” Brett Brown said. “I’m not really too sure how to address some of it, some of it you just scratch your head and try to coach better and help them more. It is disappointing the way that ended because I thought for the most part, we played good basketball. It's just the way that it ended, you have a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth.”

Richardson’s return

Richardson will make his return to the lineup. Though the Sixers have gone 5-1 in the six games Richardson has been out since sustaining the injury on Nov. 27 against the Kings, they’ll welcome back his ability to defender smaller guards, a duty Ben Simmons has assumed more — and handled very well — recently. 

Before the game, Richardson had a big smile as he talked about being able to play again.

"I’ve been itching to go back out there for a while, but sometimes you’ve just gotta be smart," he said. "Just tried to take my time getting back and hopefully today goes well.”

The fifth-year guard won't be without limitations. It sounds like the Sixers plan to ease him back into action.

"We’ll probably be watching my minutes for the first couple games back but while I’m on the floor, I’m going to go all out," he said.

A blueprint vs. the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll defense 

The Nuggets hedged hard on the pick-and-roll often in their first matchup vs. the Sixers. A unit with Raul Neto at the point — Simmons was sidelined with a shoulder sprain — had success against that scheme in the second quarter. Kyle O’Quinn, who scored a season-high 11 points in the game, rolled to the rim, forced a help side defender to tag him in the paint and freed up the Sixers’ shooters. 

Furkan Korkmaz was frequently the shooter who profited, scoring 12 points on 4 of 5 shooting, and the Sixers’ bench outscored Denver’s, 37-12.

If the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll defense is aggressive again, the Sixers’ approach a little over a month ago in the second quarter is the way to beat it — draw help on the roll, move the ball crisply and make scrambling defenders pay by hitting open threes. 

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers

With the ‘end in mind’ more than ever, will Sixers’ plans eventually come together?

With the ‘end in mind’ more than ever, will Sixers’ plans eventually come together?

Even with 58 regular-season games to go, Brett Brown has “the end in mind” for his team. As he ponders how to best prepare the Sixers for playoff basketball, he's referred to that idea time and time again.

The end of the Sixers' 110-104 win Sunday night over the Raptors at Wells Fargo Center was ugly. The Sixers turned the ball over seven times in the final 4:14 against the Raptors’ full-court pressure, with Joel Embiid giving it away three times.

“It is disappointing the way that ended because I thought for the most part, we played good basketball,” Brown said. “It's just the way that it ended, you have a little bit of a sour taste in your mouth. And then I'm reminded it was a good weekend, we just beat the NBA champs. And there's lots of good things that came out of it, just the last part wasn't one of them.”

The weekend back-to-back was indeed a fruitful one for the Sixers, who led the hapless Cavs by a franchise-record 41 points at halftime and played very well vs. the 15-7 Raptors with the exception of those final few minutes when it seemed everyone besides Toronto just wanted to hear the final buzzer. 

But, with almost anything this team does, there’s a natural instinct to consider the big picture.

Three of Simmons’ career-high 34 points Saturday came on a long range jumper, and Brown wants him taking "a three-point shot a game, minimum,” along with eight free throws a night. If Simmons gives Brown what he's looking for, what would it mean for the Sixers against opponents much better than the Cavs? 

In his last two games, Embiid has 15 turnovers, and he’s been an unfortunate combination of careless and oblivious against fourth-quarter pressure and double teams. Do the Sixers have a real chance to contend for an NBA title if he’s making similar mistakes when the games are higher stakes?

Rookie Matisse Thybulle is emerging as a three-and-D player, and his success at home has mirrored the Sixers’. He’s shot 65.4 percent from three-point range at home and has a plus-12.7 net rating at Wells Fargo Center. Those numbers plummet to 20.8 percent from long distance and a minus-14.1 net rating on the road. Can Thybulle and the Sixers — 12-0 at home, 5-7 away — eventually figure out how to win on the road?

Few of these larger questions lead to obvious answers at the moment, in part because of how often the starting lineup has been fractured.

Josh Richardson has missed six games in a row with a right hamstring injury. Al Horford is experiencing load management for the first time in his NBA career. Simmons was sidelined for consecutive games in early November with a shoulder sprain. And Embiid has sat out five games as a result of suspension, injury and load management. 

The whole season it feels like I've been going through the motions and part of it is also making sure I'm healthy for the playoffs,” Embiid told reporters Sunday. “Going into the season, the last playoffs that I've been part of I've not been healthy, so for me going into this season, my main goal was to make sure that I get to the playoffs healthy and so far I've been doing a good job of that —taking care of my body and also, on the court when I'm needed, I'm gonna bring it. But then again, I'm also lucky that we got so many guys that can make a lot of things happen. But if I'm needed, I'll be there.

Embiid’s time on the court is substantially down from where it was at this point last season, even if this path isn’t the one the Sixers would have meticulously mapped out before the year. He’s played 19 of the team’s first 24 games and 30.4 minutes per contest. In 2018-19, he played every one one of the team’s first 24 games — all of the first 26, in fact — and averaged 34.1 minutes.

The idea of a player feeling as if he’s “been going through the motions” might not be palatable for many fans. Embiid and the Sixers, though, aim to be healthy and the best versions of themselves when the games are more important.

Competing with that priority is Brown’s insistence that the Sixers are chasing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. He said Saturday he hasn’t “recalibrated” that preseason goal.

The Sixers obviously want the best of both worlds. These first 24 games, however, seem to suggest that — should they be competing in the second round of the playoffs for a third straight year — they see being better equipped to advance as more important than seeding. They want to have their top players available and well-conditioned. They want to understand how to capitalize on their strengths — size, defense, rebounding — and either gloss over or eliminate weaknesses with turnovers and shot creation. 

Though Brown and his team have their ideas at this stage about how to reach those broad objectives, there’s no preset path to follow. One of the Sixers’ best players has a history of injury and conditioning problems, another is being asked to play point guard and doesn’t have a history of taking and making jump shots, and the three other starters are relatively new additions.

None of that prohibits everything from working out in the end.

The Sixers are 17-7, have won 10 of 12 games and have 58 to go before the fun starts. 



Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies games easily on your device.

More on the Sixers