What we learned from the Sixers 116-95 loss to the Celtics on Saturday night.
1) The Sixers were a front court away from being in the game.
Yes, they were not hot from three-point range, but the thing that hurt them the most on the offensive end of the court was their inability to leverage their size the way they had in their three previous meetings with the Celtics. Joel Embiid opened the game with a baby hook over Daniel Theis and then proceeded to miss his next 10 shots from the floor. When Al Horford picked up his fourth foul three minutes into the second half, he and Embiid were a combined 4-for-16 from the field and 1-for-8 from three-point range.
Give Boston big man Daniel Theis some credit. He played a heck of a defensive game, giving the Celtics a presence that they did not have the last time they faced the Sixers, a game in which Embiid scored 38 points on 12-of-21 shooting. For the most part, though, this one was on Embiid, who never looked like he knew exactly what he should be doing on the court. After that opening bucket against Theis, he was almost non-existent in the post. That’s going to be a tough way for the Sixers to win, especially on a night where their outside shots weren’t falling.
2) We may be witnessing Ben Simmons’ awakening as a primary scorer.
There was a moment late in the second quarter that speaks to just how unique an athlete Simmons is. He had just taken the ball to the hole and attempted an off balance layup that wound up wedged between the rim and the glass. The situation called for a jump ball, which, in most circumstances, would mean a face-off between the two big men on the court. But as Al Horford strode into mid-court circle with Celtics center Daniel Theis, he suddenly motioned for Simmons to take his place. Not only did Simmons win the jump ball, he finished the ensuing possession with a dunk that cut the Sixers’ deficit to 53-43.
Simmons entered the night averaging 25 points per game with 52 free throw attempts over his previous five games. The secret to both of those numbers has been an aggressive, score first style of play that he once again deployed against the Celtics. Frankly, if this was a Sixers win, we would be talking about it as one of his most impressive offensive performances as a pro, especially when you consider the stage (T.D. Garden), the individual matchup (Defensive Player of the Year candidate Marcus Smart), and the Celtics’ history of shrinking the court against him.
Simmons was on the attack from the jump. Late in the first quarter, he dribbled into the lane, came to a strong jump stop, and attacked the rim despite the presence of two Celtics defenders. His initial shot bounced high off the back of the rim, but Simmons grabbed it on its way back down and flushed it through with a two-handed dunk. The next possession, he earned a trip to the line with an aggressive drive and sank both free throws. But Simmons might have been at his best late in the third quarter, when he apparently realized that he was the only player on the court who’d showed up with some semblance of an idea of how to win a basketball game.
3) This was as strong an argument as the Sixers could have made that what they need more than anything at the trade deadline is a three-and-D wing.
With nine minutes left, the Sixers were somehow within 13 points of a game in which they were shooting 5-for-26 from three-point range and everybody not named Ben Simmons was shooting 18-of-58 from the floor overall. Shake Milton was 1-for-4 from deep and had missed a couple of open looks. Matisse Thybulle was 1-for-3. Mike Scott, Raul Neto and Furkan Korkmaz were a combined 1-for-9. Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had combined for 46 points.
After Tatum scored 11 points in the first quarter, the Sixers did a decent job of keeping him under wraps. But there were a number of occasions when you could picture an upgrade on the wing paying significant dividends.