To say that it felt like the Celtics and 76ers were playing two different sports Tuesday night might be a bit hyperbolic, but it really did feel like they were playing two entirely different versions of the same sport.
The Celtics relied on their usual steady diet of ball movement, well-timed cuts and 3-pointers. The 76ers fed the ball to Joel Embiid over and over again and let him work out of the high post.
Philadelphia won their only game of the regular season series 103-101, as Embiid dominated all night and strengthened his MVP chances. However, the Sixers needed a Herculean, Wilt Chamberlain-esque, 52-point masterpiece from Embiid to barely sneak by a Celtics team without Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams at home.
What more could have been done to stop Embiid?— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 5, 2023
Joe Mazzulla weighs in on Joel Embiid's 52-PT night pic.twitter.com/ufQJapITfG
It was an impressive win for Philadelphia, but it didn’t mean much in the big picture. Assuming the Celtics don’t collapse in the next three games, and they lock up the No. 2 seed, it’s very possible these teams will meet again in the Eastern Conference semifinals – with home-court advantage belonging to Boston.
Don’t let this game fool you. If these teams battle in the postseason, the Celtics should find a way to prevail. Embiid had his moment, but there’s no reason to believe momentum has shifted Philadelphia’s way. He’s 10-12 against the Celtics in the regular season and 1-8 in the playoffs. Tuesday felt like an outlier, not the start of a new trend.
For starters, without Williams, a lot of responsibility fell on Al Horford, Grant Williams and, yes, Marcus Smart. Smart doubled Embiid frequently in the fourth quarter and forced him into making quick decisions. Credit to Embiid for either sticking mid-range jumpers or finding P.J. Tucker in the corner.
Embiid’s willingness to hit the open man – even amid an all-time heater – changed the complexion of the game.
But chances are, that was the best game he’ll ever play against the Celtics. He had to exert a ridiculous amount of energy and effort, and it almost wasn’t enough. He had perhaps the most efficient game of his career. The Celtics had an uncharacteristically cold shooting night. Boston still nearly found a way.
Embiid took essentially a third of the 76ers’ shots and scored more than half their points. While those numbers may not ever be repeated, the trend remains: Philadelphia’s offense is much more isolation-based and repetitive, and it’s not built to withstand a deep postseason run.
The Celtics’ offense is like that contraption at the Museum of Science, where you drop the ball and watch it zigzag from peg to peg, with no idea whatsoever where it will end up. Your eyes dart like you’re watching a tennis match, as it zips from side to side. It’s both intoxicating and impressive.
AL Horford turns back to the Philly bench after he hits the 3-PT shot for tonight's Drain of the Game— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 5, 2023
Presented By John’s Sewer And Drain Cleaning pic.twitter.com/O602xpbKYt
The 76ers’ offense is more like bowling – you send a ball down the middle, hoping to knock down every pin, but sometimes those pins have other ideas. You may get some strikes, or get hot and have a big night, but it’s hard to replicate that performance every time.
Philly’s offense is predictable and repetitive, while Boston’s is free-flowing and nearly impossible to contain when it’s clicking. The Celtics are seventh in assists, while the 76ers are 17th. Philadelphia is 27th in pace.
James Harden is first in isolation frequency and Embiid is fifth. No Celtic is in the top-10. When you do the same thing over and over again, great teams eventually figure out how to counteract it.
Celtics this season:— StatMuse (@statmuse) April 5, 2023
1st in net rating
2nd in offensive rating
3rd in defensive rating
The only team in the top 5 for each category. pic.twitter.com/BJ53t6Nu3w
The Celtics will re-learn how to force Embiid into lower-percentage shots. He’ll still get his, but it won’t be as easy as it was Tuesday night. Maybe Harden and Tyrese Maxey have a big game or two, but the Celtics have too much firepower and depth.
In a seven-game series, Boston’s style will prevail nearly every time. Everyone is a threat, it’s almost never stagnant and you can’t leave anyone open.
Embiid is the MVP, and he’s ridiculously good at basketball, but it won’t be enough in the playoffs.