3 observations after Sixers drop Game 6 at home to Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia
The Sixers could not close the deal on their home floor.
In their first chance to eliminate the Celtics and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, the team fell to a 95-86 Game 6 loss on Thursday night at Wells Fargo Center.
Joel Embiid had 26 points and 10 rebounds. Tyrese Maxey also posted 26 points.
James Harden had 13 points on 4-for-16 shooting, nine assists and seven rebounds.
Boston’s Marcus Smart scored 22 points. Jayson Tatum added 19, including four three-pointers late in the fourth quarter.
Game 7 will be Sunday in Boston. Here are observations on the Sixers’ Game 6 defeat:
Boston’s two-big unit starts strong
Boston switched up its starting lineup, turning to a two-big man lineup with Robert Williams III and Al Horford.
Head coach Doc Rivers said pregame the Sixers expected the change and practiced working against that unit at their morning shootaround. That preparation didn’t prevent his team from falling into a hole, though.
Williams guarded Tucker and played a roaming role defensively. Tucker made the Celtics pay for that approach with his first shot, drilling a three-pointer from the left corner. However, he opted not to fire soon after on a similar look and the Sixers’ possession ended with Smart ripping the ball from Embiid. Boston started very well, taking a 15-3 lead on a Williams alley-oop slam assisted by Tatum. Outside of Tucker’s three, the Sixers missed their first 10 field goals.
The Sixers’ response to their quick deficit was immediate and impressive. Across the board, the team attacked the paint as soon as Williams subbed out and capitalized on Boston’s lack of rim protection. Maxey started a 7-0 run by intercepting a casual Brown pass and zooming in for a fast-break layup. He capped it by sinking a catch-and-shoot corner three created by a Tobias Harris offensive board and kick-out dish. With the Sixers needing a jolt, Maxey rose to the moment on both ends of the court.
The Celtics managed to get back on track and finish the first quarter with a 29-22 edge. Their lead presumably would’ve been larger if not for yet another dreadful shooting start by Jayson Tatum. The four-time All-Star had gone 0 for 8 to begin Game 4 and 0 for 6 to open Game 5. On Thursday, he missed his first 11 field goals and scored a single first-half point.
Boston compensated for Tatum’s continued early woes with 11 first-quarter points from Malcolm Brogdon. Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla only used Brogdon and Derrick White off the bench.
Sixers’ shooting, transition defense struggles
Danuel House Jr. stayed in the Sixers’ rotation after his excellent Game 5. He tried a step-back, long-range jumper on his first shot and didn’t hit it. On his second shot, House made a simpler catch-and-shoot three.
The Sixers’ Embiid-less play was poor overall, though. Brown and White knocked down threes early in the second quarter, while Harden wasn’t very effective in his efforts to dial up the aggression. Smart rotated over to take a charge on Harden with 9:44 left in the second period, drawing the 33-year-old’s second foul.
Harden got zero foul shots in the first half despite feeling sure he’d drawn sufficient contact on several drives. The officials generally allowed a high level of physicality for both sides. Embiid was the only Sixer to shoot any free throws until a Maxey trip to the foul line with 1:57 left in the second quarter.
Embiid’s re-entry in the second did not have a magical impact for the Sixers. After he missed a layup, Boston jetted off in transition and Smart made a long-distance jumper for three of the Celtics’ 16 first-half fast-break points. Though the Sixers have been more diligent about their transition defense habits following a terrible start to the season, it’s still been a vulnerable area at times. The Celtics had many chances to exploit it in the first half because the Sixers failed to convert plenty of close-range looks. Shortly after Embiid’s miss, Harris went at Tatum and had his layup rejected. A Smart lay-in seconds later expanded Boston’s lead to 44-28.
Harris, Harden and Embiid all opened 1 for 7 from the field.
Again, the Sixers did a solid job of somewhat righting the ship. A driving Harden dunk gave the home crowd a nice jolt, and the Sixers’ tight team defense on Tatum had him complaining to the officials after a couple of no-calls. Maxey made a three with 6.8 seconds left in the second period and the Sixers trailed by merely seven points following a half where little went according to plan.
Tatum eventually delivers
To start the third quarter, the Celtics’ first unit remained rather effective at funneling the Sixers into the shots Boston wanted.
Though P.J. Tucker drained a corner three early in the third, he came up short on his next attempt. By that point, Tucker had already attempted six threes, tied for his most in a game this season. Rivers decided to replace Tucker with a sharpshooter less than three minutes into the third, inserting Georges Niang.
While Niang did not singlehandedly flip the game’s momentum, the Sixers improved their pace after Rivers’ timeout early in the third, pouncing on chances to play in transition. Niang missed his first jumper but didn’t waste his next chance at a big bucket, nailing to three to cut Boston’s lead to 62-60.
Following a Celtics timeout, Niang stopped Tatum in isolation, which the fans seemed to enjoy at least as much as his jumper. Niang is obviously far from the Sixers’ best defender, but he’s a fiery, competitive personality and has generally performed well enough this postseason on that end to merit minutes. Two free throws by Embiid and two by Harden put the Sixers in front, and it felt like Boston was in serious trouble. A second-chance Niang three created by a tremendous De’Anthony Melton offensive rebound and kick-out pass lifted the Sixers to a 69-65 lead.
Of course, Embiid couldn’t go the full 48 minutes in his fifth game playing through a sprained right knee, and the Sixers let Boston regain the lead with him on the bench. Paul Reed blew a layup late in the third quarter, Harden had a three-pointer go in and out, and House lost control of the ball on a fast break.
Right after Embiid checked back in, he drained a fadeaway jumper over Horford. Boston varied its looks on Embiid but mostly trusted the 36-year-old against his former teammate. Embiid had another relatively subpar night as a mid-range shooter, but he was outstanding as both a shot blocker and shot deterrer defensively.
Unfortunately for the Sixers, Embiid, Harden and Maxey all missed decent looks that would have expanded an 83-81 lead. The team shot only 36.1 percent from the floor and 23.5 percent from three-point range in Game 6.
Tatum then broke through his slump in the clutch with back-to-back threes. A third Tatum three extended Boston’s advantage to 92-84 and left the Sixers visibly dejected.
For good measure, he added a fourth triple in the final minute.
To move past the second round for the first time in 22 years, the Sixers need a third road win this series over the defending Eastern Conference champions.
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