BOSTON — The message arrived via familiar delivery, the words clipped, the volume steady, the tone matter-of-fact and devoid of emotion. As is often the case with Joel Embiid, the words impart a much harsher bite on paper and ink than they had sounded in real time as he spoke them. In the wake of another infuriating loss to a team that seems to find a new way to beat the Sixers every time they play, the big man tried to frame his frustrations within the context of self-responsibility. Yet by the time he was done speaking, he had delivered an assessment with an unmistakable implication.
“I felt like I could have done more,” Embiid said after a 121-114 overtime loss to the Celtics on Christmas Day. “I didn’t get the ball. The ball didn’t find me in the fourth quarter and overtime, so, in those situations, I’ve got to show up, but I also have to be put in the right situations to be able to help this team. I felt like I wasn’t in the right situation. We lost. I put this heavily on me because I know I could have done more, and the more I was playing, all day they couldn’t guard me, and they were playing a lot of 1-on-1, double-teaming on the first dribbles, but I have to find a way to adjust through that and just be myself.”
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Any ambiguity that may have seemed present in those sentiments was quickly dispelled when Embiid was asked why he thought the ball did not find him down the stretch.
“Don’t know,” the big man responded. “Got to ask coach.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Before doing so, it’s worth noting that Embiid is an emotional player, and this was an emotional game, and nothing about the manner in which he delivered his postgame comments suggested a malcontented player who believes that the blame for losses such as this should belongs first and foremost with the bench. There are a variety of reasons why the Sixers came up short in their latest attempt to show they belong among the Eastern Conference’s elite, and most of them exist on a level far less complex than Brett Brown’s in-game coaching decisions and/or his ballhandlers' execution of whatever those decisions were.
At the top of the list was their misfortune of being the other team on the court on a night where Kyrie Irving could not miss a shot. The Celtics guard scored 40 points on 17 of 33 shooting, including a pair of back-to-back three-pointers that put Boston up for good. Next, and nearly as detrimental, were the 19 turnovers that the Sixers committed, six of which came from Embiid. With the Celtics turning the ball over nine times and enjoying a +4 advantage on the offensive glass, they essentially enjoyed 15 more possessions on a night where their best player could not be stopped.
Both of these factors would seem to be more a function of personnel than any sort of strategic shortcomings. While this particular performance by Irving was of a different variety from most of the other epic performances that the Sixers have allowed to opposing guards this season — Jimmy Butler’s on-the-ball defense down the stretch was about as good as you could hope for in such a situation — but the fact remains that this team will struggle to get where it is going if it does not improve its defense on the perimeter. That the Sixers had an open look at the buzzer in regulation for the win should not obscure the meticulous way in which the Celtics' starting unit used its size/strength advantage to generate open looks throughout the first two quarters. By halftime, three different players had backed J.J. Redick down and sank fadeaway jumpers over the veteran guard, a strategy that played a big role in the 57-51 lead that the Celtics built.
Regardless, in the fourth quarter, this was a game that the Sixers were in a position to win.
Prior to that, it had been a game where Embiid spent long stretches of time looking like the most dominant version of himself. In the first half, he was the only reason the Sixers managed to keep the TD Garden roof locked down to its moorings, as he routinely put himself in position for any shot that he wanted against an overmatched Al Horford. By the end of the third quarter, he had 30 points and 11 rebounds on 9-of-13 shooting, a performance that could easily lead any forthcoming MVP resume tape.
Yet in the fourth quarter, when the Sixers led by as many as seven, as well as in overtime, Embiid was mostly a sidebar as they attempted to put the game away. In the game’s last 17 minutes, he attempted just four shots, and finished with 34 points as Irving stole the show.
December is no time to render definitive judgments. More than anything, the Sixers look like a team with several of unique skill sets that is in the process of figuring out its identity while playing with personnel that remains a wing defender short of true contender status.