As the 76ers barrel down the home stretch of the regular season, the final eleven games will serve as an opportunity to continue acclimating their newest roster additions and jostle for playoff seeding among the East’s elite. The mid-season additions of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris indicate that the franchise has pushed its chips in, meaning they will be solely judged by their performance in the playoffs. The outcome of any remaining regular season game will not make or break the season. However, this does not mean that individual games cannot carry greater significance. This is certainly the case with tonight’s showdown against the Boston Celtics.
It has been a lopsided affair the last two seasons, with the Celtics boasting a 10-2 record against the hometown team. This season, Boston has won all three games by an average of 9.3 points.
That margin is a bit misleading. The last two games have been closely contested slug fests that were one-possession games entering the final minute of regulation. The Celtics have had better crunch-time execution on both ends, making crucial defensive stops and timely clutch shots (field goals made in games that are within five points in the final five minutes of the 4th quarter).
These losses are demoralizing, especially considering the moves made by the franchise to improve the roster this season. In last season’s playoff series, the Celtics exposed the Sixers’ lack of defensive versatility and athleticism by successfully creating mismatches against Marco Belinelli, Ersan Illyasova, Dario Saric, and JJ Redick in half court sets. This season’s additions of Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, James Ennis III, and Mike Scott will help to correct these issues. All four players possess a combination of size and athleticism that previous roster iterations sorely missed, and should theoretically be able to hold their own against the Celtics’ collection of athletic wings and forwards.
The results were mixed when the two teams met February 12th at the Wells Fargo Center. Marcus Morris was able to score out of the high post over Tobias Harris a number of times in the first half. Mike Scott never quite found solid footing in his 13 minutes of action. Jonathan Simmons received minutes over James Ennis III (that will not be the case this time around, especially after Ennis’ impressive performance against Charlotte last night). For the former two, this was to be expected as they attempted to learn a new system on the fly. Still, it was encouraging to see them compete on the defensive end and use their physicality navigating around screens.
With the roster upgrades mentioned, The Sixers are better equipped to handle Brad Stevens and the Celtics’ offense than they were last year. Unfortunately, the February 12th game highlighted a weakness that Boston can still expose: the JJ Redick/Marcus Smart matchup.
It is no secret that JJ Redick is the starting lineup’s weakest link on defense. Because of his limited athleticism, opposing teams seek to attack him in space with dribble penetration and pull-up jumpers as he back peddles. Luckily for the Sixers, Joel Embiid’s interior presence forces the penetrating player to shoot over his outstretched limbs or attempt to squeeze a pass through a crowd to Embiid’s man on the weak-side block. This allows Simmons, Butler, and Harris to focus on their respective defensive assignments and play the passing lanes. In most matchups, the Sixers will live with mixed results out of these sets (especially because Redick’s offensive value oftentimes makes up for his defensive woes). Unfortunately, the Celtics aren’t most matchups. Where other teams zig, they choose to zag.
Rather than feast on Redick-defended dribble penetration, Boston forced him to defend Marcus Smart in the post with four shooters lining the perimeter. This created two issues:
- It forced Embiid to abandon the paint and defend Horford (a 35.4% 3-point shooter) on the perimeter.
- When the Sixers chose to send interior help, the Celtics were able to whip the ball freely around the arc as the Sixers haphazardly rotated to the open man.
This strategy threw the Sixers’ defensive equilibrium out of wack and led to a number of uncontested 3-point makes throughout the game. In the final six minutes of the 4th quarter, there were two plays in particular that are worth analyzing. Below, I will break down both plays frame-by-frame and explain where things went wrong.
Game Tied 94-94 5:53 Remaining
Frame-by-Frame Break Down
After the Celtics swing the ball to Jaylen Brown, Smart is able to seal off Redick and create space along the baseline to attack the basket. The closest help defender is Embiid positioned near the left block, which gives Smart ample room to make his move and anticipate potential defensive rotations. To avoid these breakdowns, Redick needs to fight harder for inside position and force Smart to back him down in the post.
After receiving the pass from Brown, Smart has an open lane to the basket. This forces Embiid to abandon his assignment and offer help under the basket. As his man begins to roll towards the basket on the weak side, Butler drops off Terry Rozier to help.
At this point, the Sixers defense has broken down. Embiid meets Smart in the paint as Butler hustles back to cover a rolling Daniel Theis. Simmons and Harris begin to sag as they watch the play unfold. With three defenders in the paint, Simmons and Harris cannot be caught ball watching. As you can see in the graphic, Rozier, Tatum, and Brown are wide open behind the arc. They should either be splitting the difference between the three shooters, or picking two of the three to guard. Instead, Smart whips a pass to Rozier, Simmons attempts to close out on him, and Rozier calmly swings the ball to Tatum at the top of the arc for a 3-point basket. (If this scenario ever occurs again, Simmons should stay with Tatum. Considering the defensive breakdown, the Sixers would likely prefer that Rozier be the one who takes the shot).
Celtics Lead 103-102 1:55 Remaining
On this possession, Smart is once again able to seal off Redick and gain inside position with a clear lane to the basket. You can already see Simmons and Butler begin to sag towards the paint in anticipation. Smart begins to push Redick out towards the left corner where Tobias Harris is guarding Marcus Morris (the ball handler). Morris uses Smart as a screener to shed Harris as he begins to curl towards the baseline.
As Morris turns the corner towards the basket, Simmons rotates over to stop the dribble penetration. This leaves Gordon Hayward wide open in the far corner. Much like the play several minutes before this, two Sixers (Embiid and Butler) sag towards the paint as they watch the play unfold. They are essentially in no man’s land. Morris now has the option of kicking out to any of Boston’s open shooters. He chooses Hayward, who gets a clean look and swishes the corner 3 as Butler scrambles back with a late close out.
Considering the success Hayward was having from beyond the arc in this game, Butler makes the right choice. The problem is that he is too far away to realistically have a chance at altering the shot. There is really no reason for Butler or Embiid to sag that far off their assignments. Ideally, Butler should slide over to Hayward once Simmons rotates down and Embiid should slide over to Tatum. If Morris then decides to kick the ball to Horford near the top of the arc, Redick is close enough to potentially close out and get a hand up.
Expect the Celtics to continue attacking Redick in the post. Although it’s not an ideal situation for the Sixers, there are minor adjustments that can be made to reduce the likelihood of defensive breakdowns. For one, Redick needs to fight for inside position. Forcing Smart to back him down in the post is a preferable alternative. As soon as he seals off Redick and secures an inside track to the basket, trouble arises. If this does occur, and the help defender rotates over to stop the easy layup, the two remaining weak side defenders cannot sag off and watch the play unfold. If there are three offensive players camped beyond the arc, the defenders need to split the difference or choose to cover two of the three. Half measures are a recipe for disaster. Simply put, Sixers defenders cannot be caught in no man’s land when the play breaks down.
The Sixers have a great opportunity to correct these issues. With the playoffs fast approaching, tonight is their last chance to secure a win against Boston before a potential seven-game series down the line. These rivalry games are usually decided by a few plays in crunch time. The Celtics will continue to exploit the Redick-Smart mismatch until the Sixers prove they are capable of stopping it. With the proper adjustments, I believe they are.