The Philadelphia 76ers picked up a solid 122-113 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Joel Embiid’s return on Saturday, but didn’t have nearly enough left without him on Sunday. As Embiid sat to help him ease back into playing after missing the last few weeks with a bone bruise, the Sixers finished their back-to-back with a poor showing against the Memphis Grizzlies, losing 116-100. Apart from Tobias Harris with 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting, no one played particularly well on offense and Ben Simmons struggled to assert himself, scoring 7 points on just 6 field goal attempts. As the Sixers’ defense dropped off in the third quarter and the Grizzlies erupted with 45 points in the period, the game quickly got out of hand.
On Tuesday, the Sixers begin a four-game rid trip with a chance to turn things around against the 25-25 Boston Celtics. Embiid back should be in the lineup again (he’s not listed on the NBA’s latest injury report) and Tyrese Maxey is probable after missing Sunday’s game due to health and safety protocols — Maxey was ruled out due to an inconclusive COVID-19 test, but has tested negative since. George Hill is still out as he nears his return following thumb surgery earlier this year. Boston will be near full strength as well, with only Tristan Thompson listed as out as he goes through reconditioning health and safety protocols.
The Celtics have struggled this season. They’ve been impacted by injuries and COVID, Kemba Walker has been trying to return to form after undergoing knee surgery, and they’ve had defensive issues that are uncharacteristic for how they’ve played during the Brad Stevens era. From a decline defending in transition to allowing too many second chance points, Boston only ranks 17th in defensive rating this season, down from 4th last year. They also traded away Daniel Theis at the deadline and added Moritz Wagner and Luke Kornet to their frontcourt rotation, which hardly does much to bolster their defense. Robert Williams has played well as the new starting center and he’s even showing off more playmaking ability, but losing Theis hurts.
Boston did add some help at the trade deadline, though. Using just two-second round picks and some of their $28.5 million traded player exception from the Gordon Hayward deal, the Celtics picked up Evan Fournier from Orlando. Fournier was discussed a fair amount as a potential target for the Sixers, and after a rough start in his first two games for the Celtics, he’s averaged 20 points over the last two outings and made 11 total threes. As a sound shooter and complementary scorer, Fournier can help ease the load on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Joel Embiid should still be able to have his way against the Celtics’ smaller frontcourt. When the Sixers last played Boston in their two-game mini series in January, Embiid took over. He scored 42 points on 12-of-19 shooting in the first game, and followed it up with 38 points on 11-of-15 shooting in the second. If Embiid can use this favorable matchup to start getting back into a rhythm as a scorer, draw a ton of fouls (he shot 31-of-36 from the free throw line in those two January games), and make timely passing reads against the inevitable double teams that will come his way, the Sixers will have a good chance to bounce back with a win on Tuesday.
Ben Simmons’ level of aggression will be something else to monitor. It’s understandably harder for him to attack alongside non-shooting centers like Dwight Howard, but Simmons’ recent drop in aggressiveness and rise in turnovers has still been an issue. If Simmons can start getting back to the stellar form he displayed before the All-Star break and benefit from improved spacing next to Embiid (and also look to attack downhill against the Celtics’ smaller bigs), it will give the offense a major lift.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics
When: 7:30pm ET, Tuesday, April 6
Where: TD Garden, Boston, MA
Watch: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus, TNT, TNT OT
Listen: 97.5 The Fanatic