June 5, 2023

Takeaways after Joel Embiid returns to normal form and 76ers sweep Celtics in season series


Photo by David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

Right after not winning a single playoff game in their first-round series against the Boston Celtics, the Philadelphia 76ers have earned a regular-season series sweep of Boston. They won their third and final contest against the Celtics Tuesday night at TD Garden, 106-96, to move to 35-16 and start their four-game road trip with a victory.

Joel Embiid had 35 points (nine for 19 from the floor, 16 for 20 from the foul line) and six rebounds. He scored 115 points this season against Boston on 53 field-goal attempts. Ben Simmons recorded 12 points, six assists, four rebounds, and three steals.

Here are three takeaways:

Embiid is just too good

Embiid scored the Sixers’ first four points and eight of their first 13. 

Robert Williams picked up two quick fouls, which wasn’t positive news for Boston trade-deadline acquisition Luke Kornet or the Celtics. With Tristan Thompson (post health and safety protocols reconditioning) out, Boston had little frontcourt depth, although Embiid’s 80 total points in the season’s opening two Sixers-Celtics games shows that Thompson wouldn’t have magically neutralized him.

The first look Embiid got at Kornet, he faced up on the left wing, drove baseline before a double team could have an impact and slammed in a dunk.

Kornet did present a pick-and-pop threat on the other end of the floor and knocked down a three-pointer, but the Sixers as a team showed good energy and focus defensively throughout the game. Matisse Thybulle played eight straight minutes after early foul trouble for Danny Green. His presence never hurts on defense. 

Tacko Fall, a 7-foot-5 fan favorite, entered late in the second quarter. Embiid immediately demanded the ball and drew a foul on a mid-range jumper. Fall ended up being more effective than some of the Celtics’ other options against Embiid, though, since Embiid missed a couple of the jumpers he knew would be available against the less agile Fall and was one for five overall behind the arc.  

There were other signs of Embiid being a bit below his best (which is insane for me to say after he just scored 35 points) as he comes back following a 10-game absence with a left knee bone bruise. He turned it over in the first quarter trying to throw a difficult pass to Simmons in the paint, and he had another giveaway in the second that stemmed from an out-of-sync two-man game with Seth Curry. 

Still, it was encouraging that Embiid played the first 10:28 and looked like a great bet to score whenever he had time and space. 

“… There was a lot of rust in that first game that he played, especially in our coverages,” head coach Doc Rivers said pregame. “We made a lot of mistakes. I thought offensively, we were not sharp, as well. When you get a player like Joel back and you throw him back into your offense, it’s actually going to create some short-term rhythm problems. And so we have to try to win games still, and get his rhythm back and the team rhythm back.” 

Simmons attacks

Simmons started zero for four from the foul line, not great. He made his first two field goals, though, a righty jump hook over Jaylen Brown and a tricky reverse layup with his right hand. The 24-year-old didn’t shy away from contact at the rim either, finishing the game four for eight at the charity stripe. 

When the Celtics cut the Sixers’ lead down to 10 points in the third quarter, Simmons scored six points during an 11-zero run. He also created two free throws for Embiid as the duo ran a deliberate snug pick-and-roll that eventually enabled Embiid to seal deep in the paint. Even if Rivers in unconcerned with Simmons’ scoring, we imagine he’d be pleased if those stretches of aggressive, game-changing offense from his All-Star facilitator were more regular. 

Simmons was the primary defender on Jayson Tatum, who was out for the two January meetings between the Sixers and Celtics after testing positive for COVID-19. The Celtics sought out opportunities to screen Simmons and force the Sixers to switch another defender onto Tatum, but it wasn’t very effective. Tatum scored 20 points on seven-for-17 shooting. 


Green made all four three-pointers he attempted in the first half, while everyone else was two for 10. His first-half scoring helped compensate for an off night by Tobias Harris, who was guarded well by Brown in the post and had 10 points on four for 11 shooting.

When Green puts up a corner three, the Sixers should feel confident. He entered Tuesday’s game 66 for 152 (43.4%) on those shots, per Cleaning the Glass. Given how much attention Embiid, Simmons, and Harris draw, it’s very valuable to have a player who knocks that shot down consistently. 

The Sixers’ opening-night starters continue to look strong on the nights when they’re all able to play together, and it’s clear Green is a key component.

Questions remain about how the playoff rotation will shake out, what pairings the Sixers will trust and who will close games. Rivers’ comments before the game about George Hill indicate that the uncertainty will linger for a while. Hill had surgery on February 2 to address a mallet finger injury on his right thumb. Rivers knows from experience what the recovery process is like for that injury. 

“He’s not playing yet, but he’s on the trip,” Rivers said. “He shot today. There’s no timetable that I know of, to be honest. I can’t see it any time soon, honestly, just with that injury. I had that same injury. That’s not anything you mess around with. Just one whack, you may not get injured but the pain is excruciating, because your nerves are so raw. We’re going to try to be as tentative as possible with this injury.”

Up next

The 35-16 Sixers face the 22-28 New Orleans Pelicans Friday night.

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