Sixers vs. Celtics Game 2: Embiid Returns in Blowout Loss
A little bit of good and a whole lot of bad.
Adam Aaronson, whose legal name is Sixers Adam (@SixersAdam on Twitter), covers the Sixers for The Rights To Ricky Sanchez. He believes cantaloupe is the best food in existence, and is brought to you by the Official Realtor of The Process, Adam Ksebe.
Monday night’s stunning Game 1 victory caused pure bliss in the Sixers universe. Wednesday night’s Game 2, a chance for the Sixers to forego a Boston split and take a commanding 2-0 series lead, was not as exciting.
The Sixers fell to the Celtics, 121-87, as Boston evened up the series at 1-1 before it heads to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Friday night. While newly-minted NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid made his return from a knee sprain -- and looked better than most expected -- the Sixers were completely outclassed by a Boston team that had everything clicking on both ends of the floor.
Embiid makes his return
It was impossible to know how Embiid would look upon returning from his knee injury -- generally, expectations were pretty tempered. While the final score of the game may not indicate this, Embiid looked considerably better than most anticipated. While he did grimace and hold his knee a few times, his mobility was pretty solid.
Embiid dominated the game defensively in the first half, racking up five impressive blocks. As the game went on, he began looking more and more like himself as a scorer, frequently isolating in the mid-range against Al Horford and mostly getting what he wanted, both at the rim and as a jump-shooter.
“He was battling,” Tobias Harris said. “I’m not making excuses for him, but the playoffs, the second round, intensity, physically… all of those things keep upping. He got out there and was trying to feel himself out. Obviously he’s not 100 percent, but he’s out there and he’s giving his all.”
While it amounted to nothing as the Sixers were blown out, Embiid’s showing should be considered an encouraging one. He logged 27 minutes in all, and while some of his counting stats don’t seem outstanding, it was abundantly clear that his comfort level improved as the game went on.
Harden struggles after massive Game 1
Harden’s iconic 45-point performance on Monday night, punctuated by his go-ahead step-back three in the game’s final seconds, was a performance he will always remember. His showing in Game 2 was… not as memorable. At least not for the same reasons.
Harden finished the night with a 2-14 shooting line, including missing all six of his three-point tries. In a sudden shift from Monday night’s dominance, he was both unable to generate good looks or knock down tough ones.
While everything hinges on Embiid’s health and performance first and foremost, where Harden’s play lands on the wide spectrum of possible outcomes will be crucial to deciding who wins this series.
The Celtics made an interesting adjustment, opening the game with Jaylen Brown as Harden’s primary defender, not reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart or potential All-Defense candidate Derrick White.
After a lackadaisical defensive performance on Monday night, the Celtics were particularly assertive on the perimeter on that end of the floor in Game 2, which Doc Rivers credited postgame.
“Give them credit. I thought their ball pressure ate us up all night. They pressured us, they denied us, they played in our air space all game,” Rivers said.
“We talked about it this morning, we talked about it before the game, but you can talk about intensity and force all you want, but when you get on the court and it’s actually being applied to you, you have to be able to handle it. We didn’t handle it very well tonight. We’ll be better.”
Sixers’ depth disadvantage shows itself
On a night when the Celtics flexed their depth to the tune of 35 points, 10 rebounds and six assists combined between just Malcom Brogdon and Grant Williams, the Sixers failed to receive productive minutes from the vast majority of their rotation.
PJ Tucker struggled mightily, with the Celtics exploiting his offensive weaknesses to a concerning extent. De’Anthony Melton came back down to earth and failed to make much of an impact on the game after knocking down five triples in Game 1. Jalen McDaniels and Georges Niang were silent as well. Paul Reed was the only Sixers role player who contributed much of anything.
Meanwhile, Smart and White each gave the Celtics major lifts on offense and defense, pairing timely shots with loads of the ball pressure Rivers highlighted.
The Celtics roster is flat-out deeper than that of the Sixers, and it was on full display tonight in a thoroughly-dominant effort. But with a pivotal Game 3 on deck, Rivers asserted that the blowout loss will have no impact on the confidence of his team.
“I don’t think either team goes into Game 3 with any lack of confidence,” Rivers said. “I think we have it and so do they, I think that’s how the series is going to be played.”