1. Normally we go through the takeaways in chronological order as they happened, but this game has one major takeaway we have to get to first: The Celtics, Marcus Smart in particular, lost their composure and lost the game. It’s really as simple as that. After rolling for most of the first half, as they usually do against the 76ers, Smart and Joel Embiid got tangled up a couple of times early in the third quarter. That led to Embiid sticking an elbow out when screening Smart and Smart losing his mind and shoving Embiid to the floor, resulting in Smart getting ejected.
As Brad Stevens said postgame: you love the fire from Smart. But he has to control it, because you need him. And boy did the Celtics need him. Immediately after Smart’s ejection, Boston lost J.J. Redick multiple times for jumpers. This came after Smart did a good job keeping him under wraps early in the game. And then, with the game close in the fourth quarter, the Celtics defense failed to get stops.
Now, in the big picture, this changes nothing about these two teams. Philadelphia probably wrapped up the third seed with the win, but they were likely getting it anyway. That means the only way these two play again this season would be in the Eastern Conference Finals. Should that happen, Boston should be just as confident as they always are. They were without Gordon Hayward, who does well against the Sixers, and they lost Aron Baynes and Smart during the game. The way they lost was disappointing, but it really doesn’t mean anything.
2. As for rest of the takeaways, let’s start with a big one for Boston: who does Kyrie Irving defend against the new-look 76ers lineup? Stevens started Irving on Tobias Harris. It’s similar to how Irving was on Wilson Chandler to start games before Philly revamped their roster, but more dangerous. Chandler is basically a standstill shooter at this point. Harris can do a lot more offensively, especially in the post and off the dribble. But it works for a couple of reasons.
The first being that Boston switches everything anyway, so who you end the possession on is just as important as who you start on. It also challenges Philadelphia to do something different on offense. If you want to get out of your regular read and react offense to attack Irving with Harris in isolation, go ahead. That’s something Boston will live with. It was reminiscent of the approach Stevens often used with Isaiah Thomas. Not hiding him, but challenging you to play outside your comfort zone.
3. Stevens went to Baynes way earlier than usual. Baynes subbed in for Horford at the 8:22 mark of the first quarter. That started a trend of Stevens using Baynes for the remainder of the 12 minutes that Embiid played in the first half. It’s clear that Stevens trusts Horford to guard anyone, but he prefers Baynes on Embiid. It also allowed for some of the two-big lineups that Boston has been using more and more lately. And that allowed Stevens to put Horford on Simmons, like in last year’s playoff series. The gameplan was obviously scuttled after Baynes rolled an ankle late in the first half, but it’s clear how the Celtics will defend the Sixers should they meet up again.
4. The Celtics had some really good ball movement early on in this game. On this play, Terry Rozier makes the hard push and gets it to Irving right away. Irving hits Horford as the trailer, but watch Rozier. He does a great job reading the defense and relocates for the wide-open corner three:
5. Part of what made Smart’s ejection disappointing is that it forced Boston to change their approach offensively. Yes, offensively. In the first half, they were running and pushing the ball on every play. Lots of that was designed by getting the ball up the court to the guards to find players on the secondary break, as Smart does with Jaylen Brown here:
After Smart was ejected, it took a playmaker off the floor (remember: the Celtics were already down Hayward) and Boston slowed things down considerably.
6. Rozier played a great game. He scored 20 points off the bench and was really aggressive going at the Sixers defense all game long. He looked like 2018 playoffs Terry Rozier. With Hayward taking on more of the playmaking responsibility on the second unit, it frees Rozier to play in the scoring role that he’s best suited for. Hayward wasn’t there against Philly, but Rozier stayed in attack mode and it worked.
7. It was an up-and-down game for Jayson Tatum, who remains in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career. But he didn’t settle for jumpers to shoot his way out of it. He attacked the rim on a regular basis. More importantly, he stayed patient and made plays for others. Here you can see his development as a passer. Tatum is still a threat to shoot, so he drew both Embiid and Simmons and held the ball one extra tic to let Horford get open:
8. The Celtics biggest offensive strength in last year’s playoffs was that they relentlessly hunted mismatches. It didn’t matter who had it, Boston just found the weakest link and went at it over and over again. Philadelphia’s weakest defensive link remains Redick. Multiple times Boston targeted him, no matter who he was defending, and it almost always ended in something good for the Celtics.
9. Because Smart got tossed and Baynes was out, Stevens had to go to Semi Ojeleye in the second half. As he often does, Ojeleye delivered. He didn’t do anything spectacular, but he was solid in his 11 minutes. He scored seven points and played good defense. The second-year player always stays ready and that’s key for a guy who isn’t regularly in the rotation.
10. Late in the game, with Embiid (who played over 40 minutes for just the sixth time in his career) obviously gassed, Boston went to something new. They put Horford in isolation against Embiid. And it worked. In four isolation trips, Horford scored three times. It was a new wrinkle and one that could work against teams like Milwaukee and Toronto too, because they play bigger, slow-footed centers.