One of the more unique aspects of the 2020-21 season has been the implementation of the baseball-style two-game mini-series where teams face each other twice in the same arena in a 2-3 day span before parting ways.
Though put in place to minimize travel — the difference in the home-and-home sets that were infrequent parts of previous schedules — thereby decreasing the odds of a COVID-19 spread, an added wrinkle has been the adjustments both teams get to make and quickly put to use as if it were a playoff series. After playing a team in previous years, you might not see them again for weeks if not months. Putting the time and energy towards scheming against them was a waste when another opponent loomed.
The Boston Celtics have been no stranger to this new scheduling twist with back-to-back sets against Indiana and Detroit before taking on the 76ers. In the former two, they lost the first game before using the quick turnaround to their benefit with a victory in the second.
Following a 117-109 loss to the Sixers on Wednesday, the possibility of a third loss/win split was possible. But Boston suffered the same fate Friday by the score of 122-110.
After Joel Embiid put up 42 points on just 19 shots in Wednesday’s loss, I wrote about how baffling it was to watch the Celtics continuously guard one of the game’s best interior defenders one-on-one.
A glance at Friday night’s box score shows how little their defense once again had on the All-Star big man, who put up 38 points on 11-of-15 shooting and 14-of-15 from the free throw line. But Boston sent more doubles the second time around and earned extra possessions because of it. After he coughed up just one turnover in just under 33 minutes on Wednesday, four of Embiid’s five giveaways in 30 minutes on Friday manifested because of a second Celtic defender.
Kemba Walker was a sparkling 5-for-9 from beyond the arc in Game 1 against the 76ers but struggled inside at 1-of-6. Being primarily guarded by the 6’5’’ Matisse Thybulle had a lot to do with those struggles. Walker shot just 1-of-5 when guarded by the sophomore wing, overwhelmed by his 6’11’’ wingspan that hounded him around every double drag.
Two nights later, however, Walker’s efficiency was a complete reversal from the previous outing, where his outside shot struggled to drop at 1-of-7 but he was 7-of-9 on his 2-point attempts.
Thybulle was still a primary defender as was Ben Simmons. Not exactly the ideal matchup to allow the six-foot guard to get a shot off. Kemba was simply better at finishing through contact in the second game that he tried to draw in the first. A difference lied in how he attacked off screens, with plenty of beeline drives but also some east-west movement mixed in to get to his spots for a jumper.
The Celtics cut down on their fouls (29-21) shaving 25 free throw attempts off of Philly’s total. They took care of the basketball with only 11 turnovers on Friday compared to 16 the game prior.
That they suffered an even bigger defeat might have more to do with the broader aspects of the game that were working against Boston in ways people might not realize.
After missing the last seven games after tested positive for COVID-19, Seth Curry returned to Philly’s starting lineup to hit 3-of-5 triples to finish with 15 points and a game-high plus-18. The Celtics remained without their own COVID case and leading scorer, Jayson Tatum, for the fourth consecutive outing.
Payton Pritchard played a little more than two minutes before leaving the game with what was later diagnosed as a Grade 1 MCL sprain. That he was still second among Boston’s bench players in plus/minus (plus-2) says everything about the second unit’s productivity.
Simmons’ aggression has been in question all season long. He just so happened to turn it on in the fourth quarter on Friday night, where he was 5-of-7 — he took five shots in the entirety of Wednesday's game — for 11 points along with three assists. There’s only so much a defense can do when a player starts hitting unprecedented shots like this one to further extend the lead.
The Celtics cleaned up areas that could prove beneficial when these two teams meet again. Jaylen Brown looked incredible with 42 points on 16-of-28 shooting. You would like that to add up to a performance that could avoid a three-game losing streak, not to mention a two-game sweep at the hands of a bitter conference foe and a potential playoff matchup down the line.
Sometimes, though, fixing every problem in the world can’t prepare a team for the new ones that will almost inevitably sprout up in their place.