Joel Embiid couldn’t have started much better as a scorer. In the first quarter of the Philadelphia 76ers’ first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, Embiid tallied 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting. He was asserting his dominance inside and attacking from good positioning near the basket. As the game went on, though, and the Sixers eventually lost 109-101, Embiid’s production declined.
He finished the game with 26 points (shooting 8-of-15 overall and 9-of-12 from the free throw line), 16 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block and 1 assist to 5 turnovers.
“Obviously it’s not enough,” Embiid said after the game when asked about his low number of field goal attempts.
“But I guess, especially with the way I started the first quarter, I just need to be more assertive and demand the ball. Just be aggressive.”
Embiid deserves some blame. There were times he didn’t do enough to establish strong positioning and get in ideal spots to demand the ball. His 1-of-5 shooting in the fourth quarter didn’t help either (he picked up most of his points in the final period by going 5-of-6 from the free throw line). But he wasn’t the Sixers’ main problem. Besides a flurry of first-half turnovers, one of the key issues for the Sixers’ offense was their inability to get Embiid the ball.
His final made shot of the game came at the 11:36 mark in the fourth quarter. And after he came back into the game with 5:53 remaining, he only touched the ball inside the arc once. That simply cannot happen.
The Sixers are going to have some struggles because they’re so short on playmaking and quick decision-makers without Ben Simmons. Shake Milton can help as a complementary ball handler and passer, but he isn’t a stellar lead playmaker or explosive creator off the dribble. Not to mention the fact that this is his first taste of the playoffs, and he’s going against a long, athletic, cohesive and well-coached defense that ranked 4th in the NBA this season.
Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris aren’t decisive with the ball or particularly good passers either, and there’s only so much you can expect from Alec Burks off the bench. Burks has clearly been a valuable creator for the Sixers’ second unit, but your postseason perimeter play won’t get too far if he’s leading the way. He’s far better creating opportunities for himself than reading the floor at a high level and setting up others.
Nevertheless, the Sixers’ perimeter players have to do a far better job of keeping Embiid involved in this series. Sure, they may have a hard time setting him up against aggressive double teams at times. Embiid has to help them out by consistently establishing deep positioning and calling for the ball as well. But there were too many possessions in Game 1 where they indecisively swung the ball around the wing and settled on attacking without using Embiid as the focal point of the offense.
“I’ve got be more aggressive,” Embiid reiterated after the game. “Maybe we need to call some more plays, but I don’t know. I mean, that’s another thing we’ve got to fix going into Game 2. Like I said, I’ve just got to be assertive and aggressive, and let the game come to me.”
“I’ve got one job to do, just to carry us,” Embiid added. “I’m gonna need my teammates to help me, but I’ve got to do more. I’ve got to take more shots, I’ve got to be more aggressive, defensively I’ve got to help my teammates.”
The Sixers have some major flaws that they can’t fix, which are only heightened in the absence of Ben Simmons. Their serious lack of perimeter creation and playmaking hurt them against the Celtics and will continue to do so.
That said, there are still problems from their Game 1 performance that the Sixers can correct. For one, even if turnovers remain an issue, they should at least be able to cut down on messy plays enough to trim their nightly turnover total below the 18 they recorded in Game 1 (they already improved as the series opener progressed, with only 5 turnovers in the second half). They should also be able to reduce the amount of offensive rebounds they give up, after allowing 16 on Monday night. Sharpening up their positioning and box-outs to take away unnecessary second opportunities will make a big difference.
Besides focusing on how he needs to improve individually, Embiid also made it clear that the Sixers have to correct these fixable issues.
“We know what we’ve got to fix. Too many turnovers, starting with me. It’s all on me, I’ve gotta take care of the ball. And they had too many offensive rebounds, too many points off turnovers… I mean, looking at the game, we only lost by  points and we had a lot of turnovers and they got a lot of second opportunities, so we’ve got to fix that.”
We’ll have more in-depth analysis of the Sixers’ offensive struggles coming soon, so keep a look out.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.