Boston Celtics

Sixers smoked by shorthanded Celtics on a dismal night

Sixers smoked by shorthanded Celtics on a dismal night

The Sixers had a chance to beat a shorthanded Celtics team Saturday night and sweep their regular-season series against Boston for the first time since the 2000-01 season. They fell well short of taking that opportunity. 

Boston earned a 116-95 win at TD Garden, improving to 33-15 while the Sixers dropped to 31-19, 9-17 on the road. The Celtics were missing All-Star Kemba Walker (left knee soreness) and Enes Kanter (right hip contusion). Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 57 points.

The Sixers’ next game is Monday at the Heat (7:30 p.m./NBCSP). Miami has a 21-3 record at home.

Here are observations on the loss: 

Still figuring out the fit 

Joel Embiid scored the first basket of the game on what appeared to be a new look from the Sixers. With Shake Milton at the point, Embiid set a cross screen for Ben Simmons, then quickly sealed in the paint. It’s the type of action Brett Brown will hope can enable Embiid and Simmons to share the floor without the Australian’s presence relegating Embiid to the perimeter too often. 

Brown has been honest about not yet being satisfied with the Sixers’ offense, and has said he’s willing to experiment leading up to the All-Star break as he keeps searching for ways to get the best out of Embiid and Simmons when they’re on the floor together. They don’t seem to have found many reliable answers at this stage, or to have more than a theoretical understanding of the appropriate balance between catering to Embiid’s strengths and accommodating Simmons’.

Of course, the difficulties with offensive fit are exacerbated on nights when there’s little offensive support for Simmons (23 points on 9 for 14 shooting) and the team shoots 7 for 33 from three-point range. 

Bad night for Embiid 

Boston predictably double teamed Embiid early when he put the ball on the floor, and he struggled. He turned it over four times in the first quarter, which helped ignite the Celtics in transition. 

Brad Wanamaker stole the ball from Embiid late in the quarter, broke free into the open floor and stared down Embiid after the Sixers center came up just short in his pursuit of a chase down block. Wannamaker received a technical, though all Embiid’s free throw did was cut the Sixers’ deficit from 14 to 13. 

Foul trouble limited Embiid to 12 first-half minutes. While Embiid sat, Simmons sparked a nice end to a poor offensive half, attacking the rim effectively. 

Outside of a 9-for-9 night at the foul line, there wasn’t much to like about Embiid’s performance. His 38-point, 13-rebound showing in Boston on Dec. 12 was one of his best games of the season. This was one of his worst, though he was certainly not the only Sixer to have a subpar night. That opening field goal was Embiid's only one of the game. He missed his next 10 attempts.

A variety of problems 

The Sixers shot a season-worst 36.9 percent from the floor. They had just 15 assists, a season-low. Simmons was their only true bright spot offensively. Milton looked competent overall in his fourth straight start but didn’t offer close to the same scoring punch he had against the Hawks on Thursday.

Across the board, it was a dismal game for the Sixers. Tacko Fall, the 7-foot-5 fan favorite Celtics rookie, even made a late cameo appearance. He knocked down his only field goal attempt in his fifth NBA appearance.

Boston jumped out to a 22-8 lead and the Sixers never summoned a real response. It’s obviously far from an ideal way to go into road matchups against Miami and Milwaukee.

A disappointing return 

This was Al Horford’s first game back in Boston since leaving the Celtics in free agency this summer. He’d missed the Sixers’ first game of the season at TD Garden because of left knee soreness. Horford was also sidelined Thursday in Atlanta with the same injury.

The night did not begin well for him — he air balled his first shot, a three-point attempt from the left wing, and was emphatically dunked on by Tatum a few minutes later.

In general, Horford’s return was not what he would have envisioned. He ended with nine points on 4 for 11 shooting and nine rebounds in 29 minutes.

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Sixers at Celtics: 3 storylines to watch and how to follow the game

Sixers at Celtics: 3 storylines to watch and how to follow the game

The 31-18 Sixers have two games left before the trade deadline Thursday. The first one doesn’t project to be easy, though they’ll play a shorthanded Celtics team (32-15) on Saturday night.

Here are the essentials: 

When: 8:30 p.m. ET 
Where: TD Garden 
Broadcast: ABC 
Live stats: Follow here

And here are three storylines to watch: 

No Walker; Horford’s back 

Kemba Walker will miss at least the next two games because of left knee soreness, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told reporters. Enes Kanter (right hip contusion) is also out. 

He struggled against the Sixers on opening night, but Walker, an All-Star starter, totaled 55 points in the next two meetings between the teams. Boston is 3-2 without him. 

Al Horford is back after missing the Sixers' loss in Atlanta with left knee soreness.

He was also sidelined for the team's first game of the season in Boston, a 115-109 win on Dec. 12. Joel Embiid was dominant that night, scoring 38 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.

Not a bad replacement 

Shake Milton looked like he was playing in a G-League game Thursday night. He scored a career-best 27 points on just 12 field-goal attempts, dished out six assists and only had one turnover. 

A star last season with the Delaware Blue Coats, he’s performed well over the last three games as a replacement for Josh Richardson (left hamstring strain) in the starting lineup.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Ben Simmons told reporters in Atlanta. “I’ve been around Shake since he’s been here. He works hard, he’s consistent and he trusts in his work.”

A chance to sweep 

The Sixers have an opportunity to sweep the regular-season series against the Celtics for the first time since the 2000-01 season.

They sealed the sweep that season with a 108-95 victory in Philadelphia on April 9. Allen Iverson scored 37 points, while Dikembe Mutombo threatened a triple-double with 12 points, 19 rebounds and eight blocks. 

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Josh Richardson isn't Jimmy Butler, but he's adding similar dimension to Sixers' 'clunky' offense

Josh Richardson isn't Jimmy Butler, but he's adding similar dimension to Sixers' 'clunky' offense

We may never know the full circumstances of what happened with Jimmy Butler. Butler has teased that one day it will come out. Brett Brown and Elton Brand have avoided talking about it.

In any event, Brand had to do something to fill the void of a player like Butler and saw an opportunity when the mercurial star had his sights set on South Beach. Brand was able to snag Josh Richardson in a complex sign-and-trade.

After the Sixers’ offense had looked so stagnant through much of the season, Brown decided to do some things to get more “organized.” One of them is having Richardson initiate the team’s half-court offense, much like Butler did last postseason.

On Thursday night against the Celtics, the plan was at its most optimal as Richardson ran the show and had a huge night in leading the Sixers to a big win without Joel Embiid (see observations).

“You look at his attitude and his attack mentality right out of the gate, it was impressive,” Brett Brown said. “He just was extremely aggressive on both sides of the ball immediately.”

The man they call J-Rich came out firing, dropping a game-high 29 points (9 of 16) and seven assists. He also went 10 of 10 from the line.

It hasn’t always been as easy it looked Thursday for Richardson. As the Sixers have been clunky on offense, you could see that the 26-year-old has struggled to find his place. We’ve seen flashes of his potential. He had a six-game stretch in which he was averaging over 21 points a game before a hamstring injury cost him six games.

Just a couple contests into his return, he suffered a wrist injury in Boston that clearly affected his shot. From there, Richardson was up and down offensively — until the Sixers snapped their four-game losing streak Monday.

Coming off a 2-for-10 performance in Houston, Richardson has posted back-to-back 20-point games and has the Sixers’ offense humming. Though Richardson admitted that Embiid's absence made him more aggressive, it's a mindset he and Brown have talked about.

“Sometimes, like in Houston, I kind of get caught up in being too unselfish and passing, which isn’t a bad problem to have,” Richardson said. “I talked to Coach a little bit and he just said it gives our offense a different look when I’m aggressive like that. It gives people more space to work.”

One of the beneficiaries of Richardson’s aggressive play and ability to run the offense is Ben Simmons. Simmons’ unwillingness to shoot from outside the paint has been well documented. With that in mind, Brown has strayed from a traditional offense.

The basic idea is Simmons will grab the ball off the rim or catch a high outlet pass and run. Good luck stopping him if he’s got daylight. If there’s nothing available or on made shots, Richardson will run half-court sets. One of the more successful actions Richardson has run is the pick-and-roll. That’s also allowed Simmons to play to his strengths as a screener and a roller.

You may remember that Brown tried to use Richardson as his backup one earlier in the season, but it didn’t work out. A lack of chemistry with the players around him seemed to be one of the bigger issues.

Now, Richardson is running the show at times with the starters and has looked good doing so.

“He's getting better and better just the more I play with him,” Simmons said. “Just his reads, throwing the ball up for lobs or whatever it is — take those midrange shots. He's reading the game a lot better from the start of the season to now.“

The skill sets always made sense working together. Defensively, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better backcourt duo.

Adding chemistry to that mix is getting the most out of both players.

“Whether it’s in practice — because we’re starting to go over that in practice — or in the games,” Richardson said, “when it’s little stuff that we see, we’ll talk about it and then try to do it the next play, see what happens. Today we were just kind of trying to exploit those switches. It’s kind of easy to do it when you’ve got a guy that’s 6-10 and runs like a deer and jumps like he’s a 6-foot guard. You just kind of throw it up there around the rim and he’ll usually make something positive happen.”

Richardson is not Butler. He might not become best friends with Embiid. He's not likely going to square a dude up on the court, then trash talk them after the game and call them out on Instagram.

But he’s adding an offensive dimension this team has missed in Butler’s absence.

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