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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