At halftime of the season opener, the Celtics must have felt pretty good. Everyone all off-season talked about the Philadelphia 76ers length and size they added while, conversely, talking about the front court issues that may arise for the Celtics. It was a great battle right off the bat between two teams that will be competing for the Eastern Conference title.
Unfortunately for the Celtics, those halftime spirits were quickly diminished as the wheels started to come off the defense in the second half. What was once a one point game at intermission turned into a double digit deficit where they looked like a different team. The front court issues reared their ugly head with Joel Embiid getting more comfortable in the paint. The lane also started becoming wide open for Ben Simmons to continuously drive down as he finished with 24 points on 11 of 16 shooting. History has showed us that packing the paint and making Simmons shoot is the key to success against him. Of course, this is harder said than done, but it something that Brad Stevens knows and has drawn up before.
In the first half, the Celtics showed this by being physical when the ball was sent down in the paint to Embiid. In the clip below, Kanter did a great job of banging bodies with Embiid making him settle for a fade away.
Kanter played this correctly not letting Embiid impose himself down low. It goes to Stevens’ overall game plan which has always been to make the 76ers shoot. The Celtics were very content with his shot selection in the first half causing him to be uncomfortable shooting 3 for 9 in the first half.
The problem with this game plan for the complete game was Ben Simmons’s relentless attitude to get to the paint. In a game that Simmons was able to do what he wanted, this clip highlights how the help defense needs to be adhered to or else he will go off and shoot 68.8% from the field the next time they play.
This will be the first half clip that they will show as they work on film the next day. Marcus Smart picks him up at the three-point line attempts to stop his full head of steam going into the paint, and then Robert Williams III picks up the signs and rotates over after he gets the shot off over a shorter Smart. Limit his speed on the drive, throws bodies in the paint, and attempt to affect his short range shot. Everyone in the NBA knows Simmons can’t shoot, so take advantage of that by making it difficult to get easy buckets around the rim. Again, much easier said than done as we saw most of the game.
Even as the first half went smoothly for the Celtics defense, it could not sustain a whole game. The second half looked like a different group and then almost turned into a sense of apathy once it got out of hand. The Sixers stuck to their plan of attacking the paint, and it was the right strategy against the Celtics.
Right out of the gate, Tobias Harris took a Embiid block the length of the floor attacking the paint and scoring with ease. No one tried to pick him up after crossing the three-point line or when he got into the paint.
It is somewhat understandable that this Celtics team struggled against a Sixers team with this much length. Even if a 6’4” Marcus Smart, 6’7” Jaylen Brown, or 6’8” Jayson Tatum try and body a 6’11” Ben Simmons or 6’10” Al Horford, it will be an easy shooting opportunity for the Sixers. However, that doesn’t explain the ease that Harris gets to the basket with. Being undersized makes things, particularly without Al Horford. Stevens will have to preach to his team that picking up the ball-handlers early is the best way to stop them to getting into the paint.
One last clip that was a concern on defense was that sense of apathy mentioned earlier. Yes, the team was down, and yes, it was the final minutes of the game. However, there should never be plays like this:
This lack of effort is something that needs to be nipped in the butt right away. Tobias Harris caught Gordon Hayward napping and had an easy over-the-top basket with no one around. It was not even the main focus of the ATO play, but Simmons realized no one was around Harris.
It will be a team effort in the key if this Celtics roster is going to beat the 76ers this season. They had shots to compete and take this game, but it was just too much paint presence that shut down those chances. That is why Al Horford was so critical to the Celtics against the 76ers, but he isn’t walking through that door any time soon. The Celtics are going to have to find out a strategy of team defense that can clog the paint and make the Sixers fight for each bucket down there. Let them shoot all they want and if they still beat the Celtics, at least they earned it.