The Sixers’ latest two-game home stint wasn’t a pretty one. After losing 121-120 in double overtime to the Timberwolves on Saturday, they only narrowly beat the 4-18 Magic, 101-96. Apart from Seth Curry scoring 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting against Orlando, it was a night of underwhelming performances and familiar struggles against zone defense.
On Wednesday night, the Sixers are back on the road, kicking off a four-game away trip with a matchup against the 11-10 Celtics.
Ben Simmons remains out for personal reasons, and Grant Riller has picked up a shoulder injury in the G League and is out with right shoulder soreness.
For the Celtics, Jaylen Brown is questionable to play due to competition reconditioning as he works to get over a hamstring injury.
In their first season under new head coach Ime Udoka (a former Sixers assistant under Brett Brown), the Celtics rank fifth in defensive rating, but their offense is all the way down in 23rd. They had some drama in this regard early last month, when Marcus Smart called out the need for Jayson Tatum and Brown to improve as playmakers after a 128-114 loss to Chicago on November 1 — the Celtics were torched 39-11 in the fourth quarter.
“Every team knows we’re trying to go to Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said after the game. “Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen. I think everybody’s scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don’t want to pass the ball.”
“That’s something that they’re going to learn. They’re still learning. We’re proud of the progress they’re making, but they’re going to have to make another step and find ways to not only create for themselves but create for others on this team to open up the court for them later down in the game.”
Well, since then, the Celtics’ offense has improved somewhat and they’ve earned a 9-5 record, albeit with a few wins coming against weaker opponents like the Magic, Thunder and Rockets. Overall this season, though, Boston’s offense has still been falling short of where they need it to be in certain areas. They lack playmaking and a lot falls on the shoulders of Tatum and Brown who have obvious limitations in this area, there isn’t much creation outside of their star wings and the newly arrived Dennis Schroder, they can rely far too heavily on isolation play at times, and Brown missing nine games has hurt. The Celtics have also put together a roster that doesn’t have a ton of shooting around Brown and Tatum, which only makes matters more difficult for them.
Tobias Harris could take on more of the Tatum assignment on Wednesday due to having better size to handle Tatum’s size and post play. With Tyrese Maxey’s quickness to use against Schroder’s drive game, Danny Green and Matisse Thybulle can spend more time guarding Brown. And with Simmons out the picture, Thybulle will be even more important in switching across multiple guys and helping on Tatum as well. If Brown is available, taking on the Celtics’ wing duo will be a good test for the Sixers’ smaller (and less effective) Simmons-less perimeter defense.
There are also a couple of former Sixers to watch in this game. First, Josh Richardson, who’s still had a shaky offensive season overall so far, but is at least coming off probably his best game as a Celtic on Sunday, when he scored 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting against Toronto. (Ultimately, Daryl Morey’s Richardson-for-Curry deal just keeps looking like more and more of a steal for Philly.)
Then there’s Al Horford, who’s been having a strong season. He’s bringing his typical sharp passing, improved rebounding, and looks fairly spry on defense. He’s defended Joel Embiid well in years past, but Horford has declined somewhat since then while Embiid has ascended to an MVP-level talent when he’s healthy and at his best. Against an older Horford, Robert Williams and possibly Enes Kanter Freedom for fewer minutes (the latter two bigs have struggled with Embiid before), the Sixers’ star center will have a chance to show what he can do and get back on track after a rough game against Orlando.
Beyond just a potential turnaround performance from Embiid, the main thing to watch with Philly’s offense in this game is how the big fella continues developing pick-and-roll chemistry with Maxey. Monitoring how Embiid operates as a higher-usage roller and how Maxey hones his timing and placement as a passer will be key as the offense comes together now that the team is healthy.
The Sixers could really use a bounce-back performance to start finding some rhythm with their revised offense now that Embiid is back. The rest of their upcoming road trip won’t be easy after taking on the Celtics either, with a matchup against the Hawks followed by two games against the rising 13-10 Hornets.
When: 7:30 pm ET, December 1, 2021
Where: TD Garden, Boston, MA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia, NBA TV
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic