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Five interesting plays from Sixers-Celtics

What stood out in Philadelphia’s season-opener?

NBA: Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

After pulling away from the Boston Celtics early in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, the Philadelphia 76ers are well on their way to an undefeated, 98-0 season. There are no other ways to interpret that win. Well... not quite.

One game is not enough to pen sweeping statements about players or the team as a whole. However, 48 minutes are an adequate amount of time to produce plays that are relevant to the team’s success moving forward. There were more than a handful of sequences that stood out but for the sake of efficiency, I’ve chosen five to dissect. I’ll explain what I saw unfold and why I think it holds value.

10:10 to go in the first quarter

What I saw: Al Horford dives to the paint in semi-transition, Josh Richardson tosses in the entry pass and Horford posts up the smaller Jaylen Brown. The shot trickles off the rim but Horford’s height advantage over Brown provides him a clean release, largely undeterred by the contest.

Why it matters: Fielding an undersized front-line, the Celtics opened the game with Brown on Horford. Given the available options, it was the correct move but also could set a precedent for how opponents defend the Sixers’ starting lineup. Because Horford’s role next to Joel Embiid will often entail spot-up shooting and secondary play-making — as opposed to interior scoring — it’s possible teams try to hide smaller wings on him, reserving their biggest guys for Embiid and Simmons. The Sixers cannot allow for that to be successful, especially with Horford’s low-post efficiency (64th percentile or better on post-ups in three of the past four years).

Before Horford even receives the entry pass, Embiid is motioning for Richardson to lob it inside. That’s a (relatively) positive signal, as Embiid’s previously said he doesn’t like being treated as a floor-spacer and prefers to operate on the block. Now, this is only one clip and I imagine Embiid feels the same way about his offensive usage; please don’t interpret this as me making a mountain out of a molehill, it’s a minor note I found interesting.

Horford isn’t going to exile Embiid from his ideal spots on the floor but for a team with some offensive question marks, recognizing opportunities when Horford can expose mismatches is necessary. If Philadephia does so with consistent success, it might alter how defenses approach the team’s gigantic starting five, wary of leaving wings on Horford, a big man capable of exploiting such an assignment.

9:20 to go in the first quarter

What I saw: Ben Simmons feeds it to Embiid at the elbow, saunters into the vacant paint, seals inside position on Gordon Hayward and finishes the lob from Embiid. All the while, the strong-side defenders, Brown and Marcus Smart, are occupied by Horford setting a pindown screen for Richardson. Because of that, nobody is available to crash down and help on the lob.

Why it matters: This is the type of off-ball action Philadelphia should be employing when the primary set is designed for an interior look. On multiple occasions against the Celtics, off-ball actions brought double-teams toward Embiid. Whether it was a screen sending a shooter to the strong-side wing or a cutter darting to the rim, both moves made it easier for Boston to swarm Embiid and force the ball out of his hands. Obviously, this is a different play but it maximizes the spacing and doesn’t send help toward Simmons. I believe this type of action can maximize the team’s interior offensive sets.

With two poor shooters in the starting lineup and a host of other questionable gunners in the rotation, manufacturing proper spacing is heavily reliant on the coaching the staff. The high-low lob to Simmons with a decoy pindown screen on the strong-side was a relevant example of the Xs and Os proving fruitful.

4:15 to go in the first quarter

What I saw: Simmons steps on the gas against Semi Ojeleye, who stays in front to contain the drive. Then, Simmons freezes, goes behind the back and presses forward again. He posts up Ojeleye, spins, draws help from Daniel Theis and drops it off to Horford for the bucket.

Why it matters: One of my biggest gripes over Simmons’ first two seasons has been the lack of a functional handle. He doesn’t trust it inside the arc and short-circuits drives because of that doubt. With his size and speed, he should have a more effective dribble-drive game, but is held back by his loose ball-handling. While this is just one play, there were other moments on Wednesday when Simmons flashed potentially improved handles. He dribbled through traffic early in the first quarter before making a slightly off-target kickout pass to Horford; he drew a foul against Smart in the third quarter by relying on his ball-handling to compromise the defender. It was one game but tangible and impactful improvements seemed apparent.

If Simmons continues his improvements from this game and is both a more aggressive downhill scorer and has the dexterity to slither through tight spaces, he’s going to take a serious leap forward offensively. It’s far from a stone-cold lock that both occur but I don’t recall another time seeing Simmons weaponize his handle in the manner he did on the play above. That’s a noteworthy and encouraging sign, and something to at least monitor as the season progresses.

8:05 to go in the second quarter

What I saw: Tobias Harris tries to create off the bounce, while Horford looks to establish post position. With Grant Williams thwarting the baseline drive and Horford stationed to Harris’ left, the swingman is left with few options and the possession stalls. Eventually, Richardson relocates to the wing and misses a contested pull-up 3 as the shot clock runs down.

Why it matters: For as good as the Sixers’ defense was (90.3 defensive rating), their offense was quite dismal (103.9 offensive rating). Part of that was uncharacteristically poor shooting (24.1 percent from 3, 22.2 percent on 27 open/wide-open attempts) but continuity, especially in the first half, was not a strength. It seemed like Philadelphia struggled to balance interior creation with perimeter creation, and when to cater a possession toward each. Sometimes, Embiid carved out deep position but ball-handlers were too busy looking elsewhere and when they finally fed the big man, he’d been pushed outside the paint. On another play, Simmons tried to back down his man, while Horford called for a post touch.

The clip above is a good reminder that the Sixers are still figuring out each other’s tendencies. It’s likely they move past this awkward phase but nonetheless, hurdles exist. They’ll have to reach a middle ground between running the offense through interior-oriented guys like Simmons and Embiid (and even Horford at times), and giving Richardson and Harris on-ball reps from the perimeter. A delicate balance is required because Philadelphia’s offense is not a juggernaut. The margin for error compared to other title contenders is not large. Wednesday’s win was fun and generally a positive but some of the clunky offensive trips still matter and must be addressed.

1:05 to go in the second quarter

What I saw: Richardson overplays the stagger screen and Kemba Walker darts to the right, only for Simmons to be awaiting him on the wing. Walker can’t zip past Simmons — or doesn’t try to because of Embiid looming inside — and retreats out top before dishing to Tatum. The third-year forward scans the floor and drives downhill but Richardson doesn’t budge. As Tatum approaches the free-throw line, he picks up his dribble, cognizant of Simmons standing at the elbow and ready to pursue a takeaway. With Richardson still glued to him and his dribble killed, Tatum burps up an off-balance floater.

Why it matters: It’s a brief glimpse of this team’s defensive upside. Two rangy wings shut down the perimeter, while Embiid, arguably the NBA’s best rim protector, deters any dribble penetration. The fact that Walker forces a switch and his reward is Ben Simmons doesn’t seem fair. You almost sympathize with him — almost. And then, when he can’t create off the bounce, Boston’s second-best option has to score on Josh Richardson.

Embiid’s presence alone is going to combat a significant amount of offensive firepower. If Richardson and Simmons are handcuffing opposing team’s top perimeter players on a regular basis like that, it’ll be tough to find a better defense in the NBA.

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