The Philadelphia 76ers’ start and end to this week were about as starkly different as possible. On Monday, without Joel Embiid in the lineup, they surprised almost everyone and nabbed a thrilling 119-115 win on the road in Game 1 against the Boston Celtics. Four days later, they turned in a listless performance inside Wells Fargo Center to surrender homecourt advantage and lost, 114-102. They’re now hoping to avoid a 3-1 hole by winning Game 4 and tie up the series heading back to Boston.
Joel Embiid is listed as questionable because of a right knee sprain. I imagine he’s going to play. Head coach Doc Rivers told reporters that Embiid said he felt “great” after logging 39 minutes on Friday. For the Celtics, Danilo Gallinari is out because of a torn left ACL. Marcus Smart (left ankle sprain) and Blake Griffin (low back pain) are questionable.
Ahead of a pivotal Game 4, here are some trends and key angles I’ll be closely following.
Can the Sixers get the James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll going?
All season, the Harden-Embiid connection fueled Philadelphia’s potent offense. After Harden returned on Dec. 5 from a tendon strain in his right foot, the Sixers’ 121.0 offensive rating ranked second in the league and they finished the year third at 118.3. Over the last two games, that number is 101.8. Harden averaged 4.8 assists per game to Embiid in the 51 regular season contests they both suited up for. In this series, he’s only assisted Embiid four times.
Boston is rightfully shaping its defensive principles around slowing the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. Whether it’s P.J. Tucker or De’Anthony Melton in the corner, the Celtics are consistently rotating a defender off of them to close down Harden’s space or completely take away any pass to Embiid at the nail. Sometimes, that’s led to fruitful possessions like this.
By and large, however, it’s completely disrupted Harden and the entire offense’s tempo. The pass to Embiid was seemingly automatic during the regular season. Now, it’s not. Boston is loading up on Embiid. Harden isn’t taking advantage as a scorer. In Game 1, the midrange was his sanctuary. He thrived hunting shots there. On Friday, he looked spooked to even venture in that area, let alone take a shot. The supposed potency of the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll was that defenses couldn’t sell out to stop one or the other. The Celtics are selling out against Embiid.
Harden has to take advantage; he can’t audible out of multiple open looks in the paint like he did in Game 3. The Sixers should also mix in some hard Embiid dives to the rim rather than the short roll to the free-throw line and aim to throw off Boston’s timing since the Celtics are parked at the nail against the big fella.
Can P.J. Tucker loosen up Boston’s defense?
Prior to Game 3, I advocated for providing Melton more minutes than Tucker because of his vast edge as a floor-spacer and offensive contributor, given Boston was completely ignoring Tucker offensively. While the Celtics continued to help way off the veteran wing and Melton did play five more minutes than his teammate (30 vs. 25), Tucker netted 3 of his 4 long balls. He still had a few record-scratch moments but was more willing to fire from deep than before and snapped out of a lengthy spell from deep.
It’s much easier to weather Boston using him to crunch the floor if he delivers on his opportunities. If he gets off to a quick start beyond the arc Sunday, I’m curious if the Celtics reconsider their approach. If he misfires on a couple, does Melton see even more minutes in his stead? Tucker is far from the lone or driving factor behind Philadelphia’s offensive pitfalls, but he’s certainly a component with the way the Celtics are playing off of him to focus attention elsewhere. Performing well enough to spur a change in scheme could have quite the beneficial butterfly effect.
Will the supporting cast step up?
In Game 1, Harden, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris combined for 89 points on 70 shots. In the two ensuing losses, that trio has totaled 77 points on 76 shots. While the efficiency wasn’t at dominant regular season levels (duh, it’s the playoffs against a great team), Embiid, with 30 points, was quite good offensively on Friday. Harden, Maxey and Harris were not. Melton and Georges Niang were Philadelphia’s best complementary scorers. Not to discredit them, but those two are supposed to be part of the “revamped” depth lauded about this team, not the Robins of a second-round loss at home.
Jaylen Brown deserves some praise for his work defensively on Harden the past two games. His pressure and denial have thrown off Harden’s rhythm and altered some of his shots. In Game 2, though, Harden simply missed a lot of shots he can make. In Game 3, some of that happened, but his approach was shaky and discombobulated. The free-flowing vibes that help define his best stretches was absent. He must better blend passing and scoring as a downhill operator to right the ship. He can’t stare down weakside skip passes when there’s an open shot standing right in front of him.
Maxey, meanwhile, is overwhelmingly missing quality attempts, at least in the half-court. Boston is containing him well on the break and he’s forcing some shots in the open floor as a result. I’d like to see Philadelphia clear the wings, flatten along the baseline and run more Harden-Maxey screening actions. It might give Harden the space or mismatch he needs and let Maxey attack off the catch. One of the reasons Maxey typically thrives alongside Harden is because defenses shade help and invite quick swing passes for him to puncture gaps. Boston’s rarely stunted off of him and allowed for those sequences. Deploying him as a slide screener could be a path to change that.
Harris’ scoring (13.7 points, 58.8 percent true shooting) hasn’t really been a problem in the series, though seven points on 3-of-6 shooting Friday didn’t cut it either. If he can turn in that overarching production moving forward, it’s probably a little below preferred, but not a pressing issue. The foremost concern is his defense. The Celtics are cooking him in space at the point of attack and he’s overhelping a good deal to create threes. He’s done some good things blowing up pindowns and wide actions, but any time Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum targets him on the ball, they’re generally encountering success.
Philadelphia elected to double or trap more in Game 3 than the prior outings. The results, at least anecdotally, weren’t awful. That might have to be a substantial part of the defensive game-plan if Harris can’t offer more resistance. Harris isn’t an All-Defensive Team stopper, but I have to imagine the hope was he could turn in a much better showing against Boston’s wing duo than he has thus far, even while acknowledging how good Tatum and Brown are. Harris’ angles and technique at the point of attack will have to improve to play some role in at least containing them a bit.