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A learning curve: 10 takeaways from Celtics/Sixers

A tough loss to the Sixers, and the second loss of the season.

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Well, the feel-good factor has certainly worn off. Two straight losses will do that to you. It always stings more when a loss comes against a rival, too. Especially when that rival is the Philadelphia 76ers. In fairness, it was a close game. Both teams hustled. They fought for their buckets.

There was a good intensity to the contest. Neither team found scoring opportunities easy to come by. Both struggled from the field. Yet, there were some decisions down the stretch that the Celtics might want a second chance at.

#1 Tatum only took 2 shots in the fourth

Two shots. The clear-cut best player on the team and a top-10 guy in the league only had two attempts in the fourth. To put that into context, only Al Horford, Sam Hauser, and Payton Pritchard had fewer attempts — three bench contributors. Everybody else had more shots than Tatum in a close game.

Kristaps Porzingis had the hot hand from deep. You can understand why he led the team in shot attempts in the fourth. Outside of Porzingis, Tatum should have been the next one on the list. The issue is even more jarring when you look at the shot totals for the entire game.

Derrick White has been excellent to begin the season. He should not be taking more shots than Tatum. Neither should Porzingis. Tatum is the number one option. The offense should flow through him.

#2 Brown had a bad game, no matter how you slice it

This was a tough night for Jaylen Brown. 4-of-13 from deep, hardly any impact on the glass, and invisible for large stretches of the game on both sides of the floor. When the Celtics have their full starting five available, Brown (or any other member of the rotation) having a bad game is manageable.

When multiple members of that starting rotation struggle from the floor, the Celtics need Brown to step up. He’s too important to the offense and how it’s structured to vanish for stretches of the game. I’m sure he’ll have better performances in the coming days, but this one was rough.

Rough shooting nights happen. Find a way to impact the game in other areas. Brown is usually really good at doing that and making an impact defensively, or on the glass, etc. Just wasn’t his night.

#3 Tyrese Maxey is going to be a problem for the Celtics

Tyrese Maxey is really, really good. His pace, strength, and shot-making gave the Celtics problems all night. With Maxey as the secondary option next to Joel Embiid, the Sixers can bully teams in transition. He’s also exceptionally good defensively and processes the passing lanes really well, leading to fastbreak opportunities.

The Celtics will see the Sixers three more times before the end of the regular season. And, if history has taught us anything, there will likely be a playoff series between the two teams, too. So, figuring out how to contain Maxey on the break and in the halfcourt will be incredibly important if the Celtics want to keep their dream of making the NBA Finals alive.

Fortunately, they’ve got some film on him and can begin devising plans for the next time the two teams meet. Oh, and having one of the best defensive backcourts in the NBA won’t hurt the Celtics' chances, either.

#4 Kristaps Porzingis comes up big

Porzignis’ floor spacing is creating a ton of offense for the Celtics. He’s also very smart at timing his rolls to the rim. With Embiid playing in a deep drop when defending pick-and-rolls, Porzingis was tasked with taking advantage of the coverage. That doesn’t mean that Porzingis was going straight at Embiid; instead, the Celtics were finding ways to engage the MVP on the defensive end and then using Porzingis as the release valve to attack in space.

Here’s a good example. Embiid is in a drop-style defense, but he’s positioning himself to defend the corner three while still having the space and ability to take a couple of steps and protect the rim. If Porzingis had rolled hard to the rim, or Brown had driven to pressure the defense, Embiid simply rotated over and killed the possession.

So, the Celtics work the ball around. They flow into a high pick-and-roll, then find Horford in the corner. Embiid has to step up and guard the shot, allowing Porzignis to command some space in the paint. An easy entry pass ends in a bucket. Porzingis does a good job of timing his role and using his body to seal his defender on the outside of his hip.

There was also some good facilitation out of delay actions — be it via hand-offs or smart passing. In the above clip, Kelly Oubre Jr. gambles on a potential hand-off from Porzingis, jumping out to “cancel” the action. Hauser drives as Oubre Jr. plants his feet and it leads to an easy pass and bucket.

Oh, and who can forget the two clutch threes Porzingis hit during the fourth quarter with the Celtics chasing the game? It was a big night on offense for Boston’s star big man. However, his presence also ensured there was some rim protection and shot deterrence on defense. I will leave that for another article once there’s a big enough sample size, though.

#5 Getting nerdy with it: Jrue Holiday cut creation

I really liked this play. Mainly because it was generated by smart off-ball movement from Holiday. Above, you can see Holiday “loop cut” after Brown bails out of his drive. At first, no defender goes with him, and he’s open on the weak side slot. Porzingis feeds the ball to Tatum and flows into a pick-and-roll. Tatum comes over to the screen and gives the ball to Holiday.

This is where things get interesting. As Porzingis begins to roll, De’Anthony Melton sees Embiid is in drop and peels off his man, expecting Embiid to switch onto Porzingis. However, Embiid is engaged by Holiday, getting the ball on the perimeter and closing out on the shot. That leaves Porzingis open on his roll to the rim. Easy pass. Easy bucket.

Holiday’s off-ball cut created the entire play. Loved it.

#6 Defending Embiid

Holiday was tasked with guarding up for the second straight game against a physical big man. Embiid is too strong to expect Porzingis to be effective in man-to-man coverage. He’s better at rotating over as a helper.

The problem is throwing smaller defenders at an MVP big man isn’t the answer. Embiid is too good. He has a mid-range game and can hit the three. Forcing him away from the block isn’t enough. So, Horford got his turn on Embiid. He did a pretty good job. You’re not going to shut him down completely. You just want to make life tough.

Embiid shot 50% from the field. He had a good night. However, that’s not because of bad Celtics defense. Embiid rarely got into the paint and only had one hand in his face. Boston sent two often. There will be better nights for the defense.

#7 Failing to control the glass

Philadelphia won the rebounding battle 56-43. They generated 19 second-chance points to Boston’s 12. They also secured 12 offensive rebounds to Boston’s 9. These aren’t huge discrepancies, but they can be swing factors in a close game. Figuring out ways to angle box-outs and stopping guys from crashing the glass will be a big part of this team's evolution.

They have the size to be an effective rebounding unit. Tatum ended the game with 15 rebounds. Everybody must put in the hard miles when defending the glass, especially when playing a team with multiple athletic bigs and wings and an MVP center. Hustle wins out more often than not.

#8 Getting nerdy with it: 77 slip

Nice little action here from the Celtics. White and Porzingis set a double screen for Tatum (known as 77.) White slips the initial screen and flares into the empty corner. The gravity of Tatum and Porzingis means that no defender follows him, leaving him open for the dime from Tatum and creating an open look.

More of this, please.

#9 What is up with Payton Pritchard?

Another goose egg. It’s been a rough start for Payton Pritchard. His shot isn’t falling, and he’s not impacting the game as much as anybody would like. Shooters have slumps during the season. It’s part of the game. However, slumping straight out of the gate isn’t ideal. Pritchard needs to provide a scoring punch. Hauser has found his rhythm and is playing his role perfectly — on both ends of the court.

I’m not saying Pritchard needs to be a 12-point, 3-rebound, 4-assist performer every night, but that is a reasonable expectation for most games that he’s seeing 15-20 minutes of playing time. He’s shown he can be a valuable contributor. If these goose eggs continue to pile up, he will find himself being the weak link in the rotation and forcing the Celtics to make a change. We’re not there yet. We’re only seven games into the season.

Still, the narrative is building. A few good games should level things out, though.

#10 Al Horford’s bench scoring needs to improve

Horford is adjusting to a bench role. He’s bringing value on defense and as a screener on offense. However, his shot is icy cold. He went 1-of-6 against the Sixers and is 22.7% from deep on the season, averaging just five points per game. Horford brings value. He’s never been a high-production scorer. However, the Celtics need more than 2-to-5 points per night from him.

Just like Pritchard, it’s a cold shooting spell — and those don’t last forever. Still, it would be nice to see bench players not named Hauser providing a scoring boost when they check into the game...There’s a reason the defensive specialists aren’t getting much run right now.

Looking ahead.

Sometimes, it can feel like the sky is falling after a loss. It’s worth remembering that we’re only seven games into the season. The first loss came in overtime. The second was on the final play. The Celtics aren’t folding under pressure. They’re overcoming adversity and pushing forward during games. That’s an evolution from last season. Yes, some things need to be tweaked or ironed out, but that’s normal at such an early stage. Personally, I’m encouraged.

The Celtics are back in action on Friday, when they play their second game against the Brooklyn Nets. The last game against Brooklyn was when the cracks started to form. It will be good to see how the Celtics handle Brooklyn’s intensity and perimeter-based offense.

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