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The bigs key a big win: 10 Takeaways from Celtics-76ers

Boston heads out west with a little momentum and record two games above .500

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

1. Al Horford tried to downplay the concept of a “revenge game” following the Boston Celtics victory over the Philadelphia 76ers, but it was clear Horford had a little extra juice throughout the game. He started off by going right at Joel Embiid for a bucket:

A couple of plays later, Horford went up and over Tobias Harris for a similar shot:

Something important to note with both plays: Horford ran the floor hard to get in position to attack early in the clock.

On the next trip down on defense, Horford picked up one of his five blocks on the night:

Horford is probably fibbing about extra motivation, but Boston will happily deal with some white lies if it comes with this kind of production.

2. Robert Williams was back and drew praise from Ime Udoka, Al Horford and Jayson Tatum for his play and his importance to team. Williams brings an aspect of vertical spacing that no other Celtic can approach. This was the first play of the game:

Jayson Tatum gets in on the Rob Lob fun here:

No one loves throwing lobs to Williams more than Marcus Smart. The two catch the Sixers sleeping on this one:

3. Over the years, as Philadelphia has changed their defensive philosophy, Boston has changed how they attack Joel Embiid. When Embiid would regularly come to the level of the ball, the Celtics would look for a switch. Then they’d try to attack the big man off the bounce.

For a few years now, Embiid has played more in drop coverage. To beat him there, you have to have a good pullup jumper. Kemba Walker excelled at this, as did Gordon Hayward. With those two gone, it primarily falls to Jayson Tatum to create good looks like this:

In the second half, it was more of the same from Tatum, this time for a three-pointer:

Keep that second play in mind, as it helped pull Embiid out of the drop coverage for a key play later in the game.

4. On defense, Boston has had success against Embiid by varying the way they guard him. Sometimes they guard him straight up with size. Sometimes they put a smaller defender on Embiid and try to disrupt his face-up, off-the-dribble game. And other times they’ll put their biggest player on Embiid and just ask him to bang the Sixers star. And, of course, the Celtics mix in a healthy dose of double-teams as well.

With Al Horford back, he handled most of the first kind of defense. Jaylen Brown and Grant Williams handled the second style. And Enes Freedom was the designated banger. And when Boston doubled, it was usually with size, as Robert Williams was the floater who would double and then recover back to his assignment.

All of the approaches worked, as Embiid shot 3-of-17 for the game. It’s hard to truly stop Embiid, but the Celtics do a better job keeping the star center off-balance than most teams do.

5. It wasn’t exactly a picturesque offensive game for Boston, but they had an assist rate greater than 50% again. This is some good ball movement. Al Horford hits Jaylen Brown with the skip pass. Brown makes the extra pass to Dennis Schroder for the open three:

In this space, we harp on the ball hitting the paint as being the best offense, but we do it because it’s true. Schroder makes a nice pass to Marcus Smart to start this clip. Instead of settling for the jumper, Smart attacks the paint and kicks out to Jayson Tatum. Tatum doesn’t rush the shot or force a step-back. He dribbles past the closeout for the easy pullup:

6. It was a “revenge game” of sorts for Josh Richardson too. While he didn’t have the impact Al Horford did, Richardson was solid once again. During his minutes with Enes Freedom, Richardson has figured out how to use the big man as a natural screener:

We talked about the need to have pullup shooters. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Dennis Schroder are the best at this skill of the current Celtics. Richardson is a touch below them, because he doesn’t really have three-point range off the bounce. But when he gets to his spot inside the arc, Richardson’s pullup is pretty deadly:

7. Pregame Ime Udoka talked about how it was nice to have the entire roster available again, but cautioned that comes with some challenges. The main one Udoka called out was finding minutes for everyone. To this point, Udoka has preferred to run with a nine-man rotation. Going against Joel Embiid, Udoka opted for an additional big man and called upon Enes Freedom for 17 minutes.

Unfortunately, that left Romeo Langford on the outside looking in. It’s probably fair to assume this is a blip, as Boston won’t need to run with four bigs all that often. Look for Langford to reclaim his rotation spot as the Celtics head west for a week-and-a-half.

8. Dennis Schroder is a big-time give-and-take player. He can go from looking like a lifesaver to a dragging anchor, sometimes in a matter of possessions. This is great stuff in the clutch here. Remember when we said Boston pulled Embiid out of the drop coverage? Schroder works the two-man game with Al Horford to perfection here. He holds his dribble long enough for Horford to pull Joel Embiid fully to the arc. That opens up a path for the drive:

This disaster of a play falls on both Schroder and Ime Udoka. Udoka called a set designed to get Schroder an empty-side ISO against Tobias Harris. That’s not a bad call, as Schroder should be able to get by Harris with relative ease. But Harris does a good job staying in front of him and this is the shot Schroder takes:

Why is it on both of them? On Schroder’s side, he has to be able to beat Harris here. He’s too quick off the bounce to settle for a turnaround, fall-away jumper. For Udoka, it was pretty clear Harris had Schroder’s drive walled off. Boston was sitting on two timeouts. Udoka should have called one as things broke down to draw up a different shot.

9. The above didn’t end up mattering, because of Al Horford and Robert Williams. Look at this defense to clinch a win:

Horford locks up Tobias Harris off the dribble. Harris can’t get anything going towards the rim here. Harris does make a nice read to find Georges Niang in the corner. But in flies Williams with the perfect block. He gets the ball and, just as importantly, keeps his body wide of Niang to avoid a foul.

The Takeaways started with Horford and Williams making plays on offense, but their combined defensive effort saved a much-needed victory.

10. Why was this win much-needed? Throughout December, Boston will play 15 games, starting with this game. All 15 of those contests come against teams that are .500 or better. This starts with a very difficult west coast trip.

If the Celtics can go even 2-3 on this five-game trip, that brings them home to Boston with a winning record. Anything better will be gravy. Brad Stevens said this upcoming stretch will tell us “even more about who the Celtics are” and he’s spot on. Come back with a winning record, and things might finally be looking up for Boston.