The Philadelphia 76ers won the first contest of their two-game series against the Boston Celtics this week, 117-109. Joel Embiid had another statement performance for his early season MVP campaign, recording 42 points (12-of-19 shooting), 10 rebounds, 2 assists to 1 turnover, 2 steals and 1 block in only 33 minutes. The Sixers will hope they get another MVP-level showing from Embiid as they look to finish the mini series strong with a win on Friday night.
Boston’s small frontcourt rotation of Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis and Grant Williams couldn’t do anything to slow down Embiid. He had his way bullying the Celtics’ bigs inside and drawing constant fouls (he shot 17-of-21 from the free throw line). Whether he was scoring in one-on-one situations or beating double teams by getting to the line or passing, the Celtics couldn’t contain him at all. Embiid continued to display his improved poise and decisive passing against double teams, as he made more quick reads to simply keep the ball moving or set up shooters directly. The Celtics’ options are limited with their group of bigs, but it will be interesting to see if they mix up their coverages at all with how they double Embiid and where they send extra defenders from.
As we saw on Wednesday, this matchup alone can be the leading factor in deciding the outcome. The Celtics will also be shorthanded again for the second game on Friday, as Jayson Tatum is still out due to health and safety protocols after testing positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the Sixers should be getting one of their key players back. Seth Curry didn’t play on Wednesday as the team needed to work on his conditioning following his return from testing positive for COVID (he wasn’t able to join the team for a rare practice on Tuesday, either), but he’s been upgraded to probable for Friday’s game. As the team’s best shooter and a valuable secondary ball-handler and pick-and-roll player, who was playing better than ever to open the season, Curry will give the offense a lift right away.
How Curry’s likely return impacts the rotation (specifically the minutes of guys like Tyrese Maxey, Matisse Thybulle and Furkan Korkmaz) will be something to keep an eye on.
The Sixers’ defense wasn’t too good for most of their first matchup against the Celtics, and Jaylen Brown (26 points), Marcus Smart (25 points) and Daniel Theis (23 points on 10-of-11 shooting) were the main beneficiaries. Kemba Walker also had a solid performance in his second game after returning from a knee injury with 19 points, and did a lot of his damage with pull-ups from range as he worked effectively around ball screens and shot 5-of-9 from three. Matisse Thybulle played 21 minutes, and had some pesky moments denying passes to Walker and competing on the ball.
The Sixers were able to take over in the last 12 minutes, as they won the fourth quarter, 31-17. Tobias Harris led the way with 9 points on 3-of-3 shooting in the final period, and Ben Simmons (despite having another quiet offensive game) made some crucial defensive plays down the stretch.
“I thought Ben was unbelievable defensively,” Doc Rivers said after the game. “First of all, we put him on Kemba tonight, we put him on Jaylen Brown tonight, put him on Marcus Smart tonight. It’s amazing what he can do for us, and tonight was a great example of that.”
If the Sixers want to take control of the second game earlier, though, they’ll need to sharpen up their defensive execution and ideally Simmons will need to be far more assertive offensively. For whatever reason, Simmons isn’t himself right now — whether he’s not quite 100 percent healthy after dealing with some soreness in his knee, lacking confidence, trying to build his comfort in the new offense, or simply not being aggressive enough. His 10 free throw attempts in the first game were a positive, but he has to show more aggressiveness attacking the rim, keeping his dribble alive on drives, and beating mismatches.
That said, with Embiid in prime position to have another dominant outing, Shake Milton continuing to thrive and help lead the offense when need be, and Seth Curry likely returning, the Sixers should have what they need to sweep this mini series against Boston.
Who: Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers
When: 7:30pm ET
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, ESPN
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic