1. The Boston Celtics lost by two on the road at the Philadelphia 76ers in a game where they could have sewn up the 2-seed in the Eastern Conference and kept a little pressure on the Milwaukee Bucks for the 1-seed.
That might seem an odd attitude to have, but this hardly feels like one of those crushing defeats. And it’s certainly not one of those “What the heck happened?” losses to a bad team either.
Boston played without Jaylen Brown and Rob Williams and it took an absolutely monster effort from Joel Embiid for Philadelphia to win. If anything, that’s encouraging.
Sure, you’d rather have the win. No one is suggesting otherwise. But this isn’t a loss where we’re left wondering who these Celtics are. It was just a shorthanded loss in a great game against the likely NBA MVP.
2. Let’s recognize how dominant Joel Embiid was. He scored 52 points on 20-of-25 shooting from the floor and 12-of-13 at the free throw line. And, which isn’t always the case against Boston, he wasn’t really gifted any of his free throws.
For a change, Embiid wasn’t just an early-quarters monster either. He scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and carried the Sixers home down the stretch. He hit shots against great defense several times too. And double-teams didn’t fluster him all that much either.
If there’s a positive to be had for the Celtics, this probably won’t be how they defend Embiid in a potential playoff matchup.
Al Horford logged relatively few possessions guarding Embiid straight up. Historically, he’s defended Embiid better than almost anyone else. Rob Williams wasn’t there to help on the inside shots. And Boston did send doubles at Embiid, but those doubles often came late, almost as a second challengers on his shot. Don’t expect to see those things happen or not happen in a playoff game.
The single best individual defense of the night on Embiid came from Blake Griffin. He used his feet to stay in front of Embiid, and then came up with a strip as Embiid went up into his jumper:
At the end of the day, it feels like the Celtics strategy against Embiid remains to throw different looks at him and varying their coverages. And there’s a heavy dose of letting Embiid get his, while locking in on everyone else too. This particular game felt like a “Let’s not show all of our cards” defensive performance from Boston.
3. Let’s also briefly touch on the madness of the end of the game.
What a mess that was.
But, in an encouraging way, it shows you can’t really count the Celtics out. And if you think there’s any player in the league better than Marcus Smart in the spot to intentionally miss a free throw, we can respectfully disagree.
4. Postgame, Doc Rivers said Joel Embiid wrapped up MVP with his dominant night. No one said Malcolm Brogdon wrapped up Sixth Man of the Year, but he may have.
With all due respect to Immanuel Quickley, Brogdon has him beat in almost every statistical category, and he’s a far more efficient player. Oh, and Brogdon has come off the bench for every game he’s played. Quickley’s best games have come in games that he started.
This game was another showcase of Brogdon’s importance to Boston. There was a stretch where Brogdon was basically unguardable when he got into the game.
He does a great job of creating space to get to his shot, as he does here in hitting the short fallaway over Embiid:
Even though his jumper form looks like someone with a torn rotator cuff shooting a medicine ball, Brogdon is wildly effective from deep:
In last season’s playoffs, especially in the deeper rounds, Boston needed one more guy who could do something off-the-dribble. Or to create something out of nothing. Brogdon is that guy:
5. On a team with the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, it’s remarkable that Derrick White has been the Celtics best defensive guard, and probably the best overall defensive player for Boston. Hopefully that comes with All-Defense recognition, because White deserves it.
Part of what makes White special is that he never quits on a play. This is just hustle and desire to get a stop:
There’s also not a better rim-protecting guard in the league:
Let’s just all agree that he’s All-D-White from here on out.
6. One thing that is still a pretty open-ended question, and maybe it’s by design, is: What is the backup big rotation?
Al Horford is going to start. It seems like the team has found a rhythm with Derrick White staying in the starting lineup and Rob Williams coming off the bench. The guess is that will stick, unless it’s a changeup in something like Game 4 of a series.
It could be as simple as last season’s Horford-Rob Williams-Grant Williams trio splitting the big minutes. So, maybe it’s not really all that big of a question anyway.
But if Joe Mazzulla needs to go a fourth big, who will it be? It’s probably Blake Griffin, given how solid he’s been for Boston, but it might be matchup dependent. Mazzulla seems to have trust in Luke Kornet when he needs some size on the floor, and Mike Muscala offers more shooting ability.
In the end, this is probably a wait-and-see thing. And maybe the real hope is that we never actually need to find out.
7. There were two moments of fourth-quarter playoff defense from the Celtics. The first involved Grant Williams picking up James Harden on a switch. First, Williams did a nice job staying in front of Harden. As Harden goes into his step-back, watch how Williams contests the shot, by going wide and staying on Harden’s shooting hand. That allows him to avoid anything that looks like a foul:
The other one came a couple of minutes later. This whole possession was Boston smothering Philadelphia. It ended with Tobias Harris and Harden locked up in the corner:
Put that block on All-D-White’s highlight reel too.
8. It wasn’t a great shooting night for Jayson Tatum, but it was another night of him showing growth dealing with extra defensive attention. Against both the Bucks and the Jazz, Tatum did a good job of reading the defense to set up his teammates. He repeated that against the Sixers.
P.J. Tucker is cheating off Al Horford here, because he wants to give help if Tatum drives Joel Embiid. Tatum sees it and hits Horford:
De’Anthony Melton drifts one step too far from Derrick White and Tatum’s on it:
Sometimes drawing that extra defender is a little more direct, like this drive-and-kick pass from Tatum to Horford in the corner:
9. In some ways, this game was played like a playoff game. The defense was pretty good and the pace was relatively slow. In a low-possession game, which most playoff games are, you need to execute and steal some points in unexpected ways.
One way to do that is off inbounds sets. Boston scored twice off BLOB sets in this one. The first time was Derrick White hitting a three when Grant Williams screened off his man to get him open directly on the inbounds pass. (There’s no clip because TNT was showing us a closeup of Doc Rivers instead of the game. Sigh.)
The second was Jayson Tatum cutting directly off of an Al Horford screen to shoot off the catch on an inbounds pass from Marcus Smart:
These are small, simple things, but they are important in the grand scheme of winning playoff games. It’s good to see the Celtics executing the simple stuff at a high level.
10. The Celtics get right back at it on Wednesday night, as they travel back home to Boston to face the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors are coming off crushing the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday night, so neither team has any sort of rest advantage.
It’s the first of a two-game mini-series too. We’ll see if Joe Mazzulla chooses to rest anyone on Wednesday, beyond Al Horford, who is highly unlikely to play. But this is a nice simulation of the playoffs, by seeing the same team twice in three days.
Boston only needs to win one game (or have Philadelphia lose one game) to wrap up the 2-seed. That’ll come, whether it’s Wednesday, or later in the week. From there, it’s all about rust vs rhythm, as the Celtics get ready for the playoffs.