Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid's Huge Game Helps Sixers Top Celtics

Joel Embiid returned to the Sixers lineup and delivered another MVP-level performance Wednesday in a 117-109 win over the Celtics.

3 observations after Embiid's huge game helps Sixers top Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Joel Embiid didn’t join the Sixers for their latest road trip because of right knee pain. He was back for Wednesday’s matchup against the Celtics at Wells Fargo Center, though, and the Sixers are surely thrilled he was available. 

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Embiid led the Sixers to a 117-109 win, scoring 42 points on 19 field-goal attempts, 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 did not 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, according to the league’s COVID-19 protocols. Celtics star Jayson Tatum may be able to return for the finale of this mini-series on Friday as he makes progress after reportedly testing positive for COVID-19. 

Here are observations on the Sixers’ win Wednesday:

Embiid too much to handle

Embiid looked sharp and impossible to effectively defend. 

The Sixers had success early on using him at the left elbow region and in pick-and-pops 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, of course, 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 position near the left block, 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 knack this season for executing on both basic and sophisticated reads from the post. 

Embiid is elite at creating free throws and showed it against another opponent not equipped to stop him, making 17 of 21. 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. That said, give Dwight Howard 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 didn’t make a field goal until a steal on Jeff Teague and 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 7 for 10 from the foul line, a 17-point output on Jan 6 against the Wizards is still his high for the season. Simmons obviously 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, scoring 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. 

Korkmaz’s return and the impact on Sixers’ bench 

Furkan Korkmaz returned Wednesday after missing over three weeks because of a left adductor strain, posting seven points in 19 minutes, including a stylish reverse dunk. Isaiah Joe was the odd man out as Milton, Howard, Matisse Thybulle and Korkmaz were the only second-unit 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 percent) from three-point range. We assume he’ll get another opportunity soon enough, 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. 

A defensive question

Tyrese Maxey drew the initial assignment on Kemba Walker. The rookie 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 rearview contests, but Walker managed to make two more long-range jumpers. The Sixers were fortunate that Walker (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 the four-time All-Star’s hands. In a future playoff series, would they 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. 

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