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Beyond the box score: Observations from the Sixers’ loss to Boston

Some good, some bad, but take all of it with a grain of salt — there’s at least 81 games to go.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Well, Tuesday didn’t go as planned. The Boston Celtics asserted their superiority over the Philadelphia 76ers in a 105-87 opening night contest inside TD Garden. It was a game that never quite felt like the Sixers were out of it, nor were they really in it for most of the second half.

There was some good, there was some bad, but all of it was wrapped into a ball of ugliness.

Many of the Sixers struggles can be attributed to the fact that Boston is just really good. Most teams coming off a trip to China squaring off against a top-four club in the league on the road would look disjointed. Anyhow, there are plenty of observations. Some encouraging, some perplexing, some frustrating. Let’s dive in.

Robert Covington’s defensive wizardry

Whether or not every Sixers fan wants to admit it, Covington is really good. While he struggled to connect beyond the arc Tuesday, netting just 2 of his 7 three-pointers, his defense was a continuation of his All-Defensive First Team performance in 2017-18. In a word, he was masterful.

Early in the first quarter, he contained Kyrie Irving and induced a challenging mid-range jumper, recovering from Irving’s shifty change of direction to contest the shot. Shortly after, he found himself pitted against Al Horford in the post, absorbing the punches as Horford tossed up a fadeaway with Covington’s 7-foot-2 wingspan in close pursuit:

But on-ball defense isn’t what landed Covington on All-Defensive First Team last season. Rather, it’s his elite awareness as a help defender and penchant for snatching possessions away with his lightning-quick hands.

Twice in the first quarter, he kept points off the board by harnessing his basketball smarts and gifts. The first time came against Jaylen Brown, swiping the ball out of his clutches and flipping possession. Then, in what was arguably his most impressive defensive showing of the evening, he contorted his body to alter Terry Rozier’s finish at the rim:

The second half was an exhibition of his recognition off the ball, pilfering two steals — proving he should once again find himself near the top of the leaderboard in that category.

*Fair warning: analyzing these two plays might turn into an overflowing of praise for Covington, because, in my opinion, he was nothing short of stellar defensively against Boston.*

His first steal was a manifestation of all that he provides off the ball. When Brown presses the gas to drive, Covington is just a step inside the arc. He eliminates Aron Baynes as a passing outlet and finds a way to maintain possession while all of his momentum carries him toward the baseline (side note: Joel Embiid’s weak side rotation was impressive, too). The second was a crush-your-soul snare out of Horford’s hands after switching with T.J. McConnell.

Joel Embiid’s mobility and his struggles down low

During most possessions last season, the Sixers switched everything among positions 1-4 and dropped Embiid back in coverage. That strategy enabled Embiid to wreak havoc as a rim protector and conserve energy for offensive possessions, which were almost always funneled through him.

On Tuesday, that changed. Embiid opened the game defending Jayson Tatum while Ben Simmons dueled with Horford. With Tatum serving as a primary scorer/ball-handler, Embiid was consistently thrust onto the perimeter. For the most part, he held his own. Tatum hit some tough shots, though also shook free of Embiid a time or two; but by and large, the third-year center’s mobility was on full display as his size, length and quickness engulfed Tatum.

The Sixers also varied their pick-and-roll coverage, dropping Embiid back less often and tasking him with zippy guards. It might have been more common to see him guarding wings and ball-handlers than bigs on Tuesday, leading to clips that could fill the highlight reel for a hoops unicorn.

Drop coverage schemes have supreme value for teams with elite rim protectors — inviting inefficient two-pointers or imposing looks inside — but they also present a clear ceiling in the postseason when offensive players are more talented and better understand how to manipulate the openings that arise. If Embiid can balance the increased aerobic activity with his offensive workload, the Sixers’ defensive upside becomes that much higher.

The success Embiid enjoyed on one end of the floor didn’t exactly translate to the other end though, as Horford and Baynes, just as they did last April and May, found ways to get under his skin. But the fact Embiid struggles to score in the post against Boston isn’t what’s noteworthy, as it’s largely common knowledge for Sixers fans. What stands out is the varying ways Horford and Baynes stymie Embiid.

Embiid generally has little trouble establishing inside position against Horford, but once he catches the ball, Horford’s timing and ability to reject shots without fouling flummox Embiid. If it were a game of chess, Horford lulls Embiid into believing he’s gained the upper hand, before three swift moves lead to checkmate in Horford’s favor.

Baynes doesn’t boast the same timing and coordination as Horford. Instead, he refuses to cede even an ounce of real estate to Embiid. He forces Embiid farther away from the hoop than he’s comfortable with, which seems to throw him off kilter and out of rhythm.

All of this is to say something has to change in the Sixers’ offensive approach against Boston. It cannot be founded in a series of Embiid post-ups because a) the Celtics have the personnel to render those inefficient, and b) they rarely send double teams, meaning shooters aren’t open. I’m not exactly sure what the correct scheme should be, but more pick-and-rolls/pops and fewer post touches is a good launching point. At least against Baynes, pulling him away from the hoop and inviting Embiid to leverage his speed is another alternative to the current, ineffective method.

Lack of floor spacing an issue for offensive philosophy

After the first quarter ended, head coach Brett Brown told TNT’s Rosalyn Gold-Onwude, “We’re trying to post our players and do it in a way that’s not too static or too force fed with turnovers.”

It’s clear the Sixers want to use the post as an offensive hub. Embiid is one of the league’s premier low-post players. During the preseason, there was an emphasis on feeding Simmons opportunities down there, both as a facilitator and scorer. In the regular-season opener, guys — primarily Dario Saric, Embiid and Simmons — often ducked into the post, sealed off their man and called for the ball.

Philadelphia was second in the NBA in post-up possessions last season, and tallied 15 on Tuesday, which would have ranked 6th a year ago. There’s not a pressing issue with that scheme, as long as the surrounding personnel fits accordingly. But right now, that’s not the case, because the team simply lacks the spacing to avoid opponents clogging the paint with help defenders.

At one point, all three non-shooting ball-handlers, Markelle Fultz, T.J. McConnell, and Simmons, were in the game together, which predictably resulted in disaster.

A freeze frame of the play isn’t any prettier:

Acknowledging the lack of bench depth is critical here, however, as Zhaire Smith, Wilson Chandler, and Mike Muscala — two of whom can stretch the floor — all missed Tuesday’s contest. With those reinforcements, it’s likely some of the weird, clunky lineups Brown trotted out won’t be commonplace once Philadelphia is at or near full strength.

Ben Simmons, the shooter?

My final observation is a brief one: Ben Simmons shot three mid-range jumpers against Boston. He missed all three, yes, but as a rookie, he attempted just 108, fewer than 1.5 per game. The sample size is incredibly small and I wouldn’t expect him to shoot three every night, but each was hoisted without hesitation. He shot them because he wanted to, not because it was late in the shot clock and stingy defensive coverage twisted his arm into them. At the very least, the willingness to pull up off the bounce outside the paint is encouraging.

Opening the year 0-1 isn’t fun, because losing, while generally looking overmatched, is never enjoyable. But the sky isn’t falling. The Sixers have some things to clean up, as every team does. So, as the Chicago Bulls stroll into town, remember, in the wise words of Joel Embiid, “Tough start but “Jalen Rose” more to go #TheProcess #81.”

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