Joel Embiid didn’t travel with the Philadelphia 76ers for their latest road trip because of right knee pain. He was back for Wednesday night’s matchup against the Boston Celtics in South Philadelphia, and the Sixers are thrilled he was able to play. Embiid led the Sixers to a 117-109 win, scoring 42 points on 19 field-goal attempts, also grabbing 10 rebounds and helping the team improve to 10-5 with another MVP-level performance.  

Seth Curry has cleared the NBA’s health and safety protocols but he still didn’t play Wednesday as he regains his conditioning after testing positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 7. All players who test positive for COVID-19 are not permitted to exercise for at least 10 days, per the league’s COVID-19 protocols. Celtics star small forward Jayson Tatum may be able to return for the finale of the 76ers-Celtics mini-series on Friday as he makes progress after testing positive for COVID-19. 

Here are three takeaways from Wednesday nights game:

Embiid was too much for the Celtics to handle

76ers center Joel Embiid looked sharp and impossible to defend during Wednesday night’s win over the Celtics. 

The Sixers had success early on using him at the left elbow region and in pick-and-pop plays at the top of the key, more difficult spots for the Celtics to double team him than on the low block.

Boston still didn’t mind double teaming Embiid whenever possible, obviously, and the Sixers were also perfectly happy to post him up. There was a nice sequence for the Sixers in the second quarter when Embiid earned a position near the left block. Embiid drew help and made the simple pass out of it, and eventually watched Shake Milton sink a three on the other side of the floor. A cross-court assist to Danny Green in the third quarter was another Embiid passing highlight that demonstrated his skill this season for executing on basic reads from the post. 

Embiid is elite at making free throws and he showed it against another opponent not equipped to stop him, making 17 of 21 free throws. That skill was especially important when the Sixers went on an extended second-quarter drought without a field goal. Embiid’s health is paramount for the Sixers, and the team’s 0-3 record without him this season isn’t necessary to illustrate that obvious fact. With that being said, you got to give Dwight Howard some credit for being a nuisance to the Celtics and recording six offensive rebounds. 

In a contrast to Embiid, Ben Simmons’ scoring could again be described as modest. The 24-year-old point-guard didn’t make a field goal until a steal on Jeff Teague and an ensuing transition slam early in the third period. He picked up his fifth foul late in the third quarter and finished with 11 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists.

While Simmons attacked the rim well on several occasions when he sensed an opening and shot seven for ten from the foul line, a 17-point output on Jan. 6 against the Wizards is still his high for the season. Simmons always consistently contributes in many ways besides scoring, and should benefit when Curry does return.

Tobias Harris (22 points on 9-for-17 shooting) provided some necessary offensive impetus at key moments, as he scored seven-straight points when the Sixers fell behind 12-4 and helping the team retake the lead early in the fourth quarter in a lineup with four bench players. 

Furkan Korkmaz’s return and the impact it had on the Sixers’ bench 

Furkan Korkmaz returned Wednesday after missing over three weeks because of a left adductor strain. He posted seven points in 19 minutes, including a nice reverse dunk. Isaiah Joe was the odd man out as Shake Milton, Dwight Howard, Matisse Thybulle, and Furkan Korkmaz were the only the second-unit of the Sixers to appear. 

Asked about Joe before the game, head coach Doc Rivers noted he’s not the only shotmaker on the Sixers: “He’s a guy that can make shots but so can Shake, so can Furkan, so can Danny Green, so can Seth Curry,” Rivers said. “He’s just in a line of guys that we have. It’s a great luxury. It’s a great luxury to have a guy that can come off the bench and make shots. You know what else? I thought he showed himself to be a solid defender, as well, which will help moving forward.”

Since playing 45 minutes for the seven-man Sixers on Jan. 9, Joe shot 17 of 39 (43.6%) from three-point range. It’s assumed he will get another opportunity sooner than later, whether it comes from another player’s injury or Rivers deciding at some stage to split his minutes with Korkmaz or Thybulle. As Rivers mentioned, the rookie wing has looked “savvy and prideful defensively”, qualities that should boost his case to play even if his jumper isn’t falling. 

The defense

Tyrese Maxey drew the initial assignment on Kemba Walker. The rookie, Maxey, didn’t have an auspicious start as Walker, in his second game back after missing the beginning of this season with a left knee injury, drained two early pull-up three-pointers. Matisse Thybulle bothered Walker a bit in the second quarter with his length, constant activity and disruptive contests, but Walker managed to make two more long-range jumpers. The Sixers were fortunate that Walker (who had just 19 points) only played 22 minutes and didn’t stay as hot after halftime as Boston focuses on easing him back into action. 

Though the Sixers didn’t have their big men drop far back against Walker, they also weren’t willing to regularly blitz him, or otherwise force the ball from Walker’s hands. In a future playoff series, would the Sixers play more aggressive pick-and-roll defense against him? We won’t get an answer to that question anytime soon, though we’ll be watching for adjustments in the finale of this mini-series. 

The now 10-5 76ers will play the Celtics again on Friday, Jan. 22