Mere seconds following tipoff, the first of the Boston Celtics’ various Game 2 adjustments was evident. Jaylen Brown immediately pressured James Harden as the Philadelphia 76ers’ star guard began bringing the ball up the floor to orchestrate offense. In Game 1, Marcus Smart assumed the primary assignment against Harden, who was sizzling all night en route to 45 points and a 119-115 win for the shorthanded Sixers. Brown’s 6-foot-6 frame and point-of-attack feistiness disrupted some of the flow Harden fostered in Game 1. While he missed numerous shots in his wheelhouse, his 2-of-14 shooting line was partly due to Brown and the stylistic differences he presented than defenders like Smart and Malcolm Brogdon.
Adjustments like that, as well as a torrid, 20-of-51 showing beyond the arc, powered Boston to a dominant, 121-87 Game 2 victory to knot the series at 1-1, even despite Joel Embiid’s return. The venue now moves to South Philadelphia, where the Sixers will aim to keep the homecourt advantage they stole in Game 1. Blowouts happen in a playoff series — that’s the nature of these things. Allowing them to dictate massive overreactions is unwise, but the Sixers clearly have flaws that the Celtics’ alterations and general success through two games revealed. At least some of the approach should look different on Friday.
Whether it’s a promotion to the starting lineup or simply a minutes bump, I’d strongly consider giving De’Anthony Melton significantly a grander slice of the pie at the expense of P.J. Tucker, particularly alongside the other four starters. Melton didn’t play well in Game 2, but he’s a better player and fit than Tucker because he’s a versatile, effective shooter and does not hamstring the offense like his veteran teammate. With the way Boston brought a good deal of aggressive help at the nail in Game 2 to reduce space on Harden’s probing and pick-and-rolls, Melton’s quick trigger and willingness to relocate, the latter of which elongates and complicates the nail defender’s closeout, might also loosen up the offense.
Swapping Tucker for Melton leaves Al Horford in a precarious spot. He’d probably defend Embiid, someone he’s had no match for this season, and would be guarding lots of ball-screens, where he’s looked vulnerable all playoffs. If Boston wanted to keep him as a helper on Embiid, the remaining four Sixers would all challenge him. If that sparked a lineup change for the Celtics, the five-out offense full of connective passing could dissipate, though Grant Williams is a viable alternative. But I’m not sure he’s equipped to handle Embiid for an entire game, despite some quality possessions in Game 2.
In the 40 regular season games that Melton, Maxey and Harden all played, they averaged about 10 minutes of floor time together. To open this series, that’s shrunk to six total minutes. The Celtics are not some humungous team, they’re not crushing Philadelphia on the offensive boards and were 27th in offensive rebounding rate this year. Plus, according to Cleaning The Glass, in Harden-Maxey-Melton regular season units, the Sixers’ opposing offensive rebounding rate ranked in the 77th percentile (25.3 percent); the group held its own. At the very least, trying something that’s worked this year — the Sixers sport a plus-5.8 net rating in 785 possessions with this guard trio on the court — could be worthwhile. It’s not like the current plan went swimmingly on initial look.
Letting Melton be the third ball-handler in lineups, rather than the second that he’s been regularly, would avoid him being overextended and mitigate some of the erratic drives he’s pursued this week. And, I’d like to see him get a shot on Jaylen Brown. Tatum is comfortably bullying his way through Melton for fruitful drives and free throws. Brown is torching Tobias Harris. Like his running mate, he might just muscle through Melton, too, but one of his biggest weaknesses is a shaky handle and Melton’s dexterous claws could curb some of these explosive rim attacks. His 6-foot-8 wingspan may be of service on shot contests as well. It was once in Game 2 off of a switch.
One of the most impactful tweaks the Celtics made between Monday and Wednesday was treating Tucker as virtually nonexistent offensively in the half-court. They often stashed Horford or Robert Williams III on him and boldly helped off Tucker from both the strong and weakside to gum up drives, pick-and-rolls, and post-ups. When Harden tried to force a switch against one of the bigs by calling Tucker to screen, it turned into a 1-on-2 scenario instead. In Game 1, those were switches that Harden thrived against. When Harden fed Tucker a pass in space off of those traps, Tucker didn’t stress or bend the defense whatsoever and reset the possession.
Through three quarters (the game was effectively over after that), the Sixers scored 31 points during the 21 minutes he played and 34 during the 15 minutes he sat. With him on the court during that span, they shot 7 of 21 on two-pointers. When he rested, they shot 12 of 19. The spacing contrast between these two players and the ripple effects of Boston’s defensive matchups is summarized by a pair of Embiid post-ups.
Not only did the Celtics elect to ignore him, he’s bypassing corner threes against any sort of relevant closeout. He’s only shooting when nobody’s in the vicinity. It’s a nearly identical problem that Matisse Thybulle presented for the offense, except his cutting and finishing are replaced by Tucker’s offensive rebounding and screening.
Almost every playoff team reaches a point where one of their starters’ shortcomings threatens to derail the season. Philadelphia might be there with Tucker. I still see value in his screening, rebounding and defense. But it’s probably best served in a smaller rotational role than the one he’s played this year unless head coach Doc Rivers and Co. finds a path to greatly enhance his offensive utility and give Boston pause about defending 5-on-4.
All season, a savvy defense seemed prime to lasso in the Sixers’ vibrant offense by magnifying Tucker’s narrow offensive arsenal, just as the Celtics did in last spring’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Miami Heat. Boston’s again shaping that reality, one Philadelphia must likely address to shift the tide of this series.