It wasn't at TD Garden in Boston, but the Sixers' first-round series against the Celtics fittingly began Monday night with the team falling on the "road," 109-101, at Walt Disney World. They had a 12-26 regular-season record on the road, the worst of any playoff team.
Jayson Tatum (32 points) and Jaylen Brown (29 points) were the game's leading scorers, while Joel Embiid had 26 points and 16 rebounds.
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The teams will play again Wednesday night at 6:30 p.m.
Here are observations on Game 1:
Pressure's on Embiid
Embiid opened auspiciously, sinking a running hook over Daniel Theis on the Sixers' first possession, making his first five shots and scoring 11 of the team's first 17 points. He even drained a step-back three.
As we knew entering the series, the Celtics do not have an individual defender who can stymie his combination of size and skill.
The greatest offensive issue for both Embiid and the Sixers was turnovers. The three-time All-Star gave it away three times in his initial stint because he was attempting to force passes that weren't available. Before Boston had a single turnover, the Sixers had seven. Embiid's fourth turnover resulted from him spinning straight into a double team, but the majority of his and the Sixers' giveaways were of the careless variety.
They had 13 first-half turnovers and only managed to force four, which is too large a disparity for a team playing without an All-Star in Ben Simmons, who's sidelined indefinitely with a left knee injury. It was a disappointing turn of events for the Sixers after the team went from 25th in the NBA in turnovers last season to 10th this year (14.2 per game).
After his early dominance, Embiid's production faded and he was less prominent in the offense for the remainder of the first half. Given that he only played approximately 43 minutes in the Sixers' final four seeding games because of minor left ankle and right hand injuries, it makes sense that Embiid appears to not be in peak condition. That's not to say he looked terribly slow or sluggish, but there were a couple of stretches where his movement seemed somewhat labored.
From the Sixers' perspective, they need Embiid to carry a substantial offensive load, stay engaged and play heavy minutes for the rest of the series.
Figuring out the defensive game plan
Though Brett Brown said Sunday he was considering starting Matisse Thybulle, the Sixers kept Al Horford in their starting lineup. Horford had a difficult early assignment on Brown, who scored eight points within the opening six minutes.
It was noticeable that the Sixers had Horford hedge hard on several ball screens in an attempt to disturb or at least delay Kemba Walker and Boston's ball handlers. Sixers wing defenders often adopted the same approach on pick-and-rolls not involving big men. Another interesting schematic note is that the Sixers allowed Celtics centers to shoot wide-open jumpers from the perimeter, preferring to keep Embiid in the paint. It's clear the Sixers don't want Embiid to stray far from the rim more than is necessary.
Thybulle expectedly matched up with the All-Star Tatum. He started well in his first playoff action and was excellent defensively in the fourth period. He did, however, have a difficult stretch when Tatum got hot and scored 15 second-quarter points.
The Thybulle-Josh Richardson duo clearly wasn't very effective overall vs. Tatum in Game 1, although the Sixers don't have many other viable options in terms of personnel, especially with Glenn Robinson III out for at least the beginning of the series because of an oblique muscle strain. Perhaps the Sixers could try top-locking Tatum, having Embiid deviate from drop coverage in ball screens with Tatum, or shading help defense further in his direction for Game 2. There are, of course, ripple effects of those adjustments that would pose other challenges.
Starting Thybulle on Tatum and having Richardson begin the game on Walker remains a possibility, too, and it looks worth trying.
Embiid is obviously the hub of the offense, but the Sixers need others to chip in around him - and likely a bit more than that - to win this series. While the Celtics have a sizable edge in shot creators, it was encouraging that Shake Milton (13 points on 5 for 7 shooting) and Alec Burks (18 points on 6 for 15 shooting) combined for 31 points. Burks, in particular, provided some offensive impetus in Embiid-less minutes, including during a 13-0 Sixers run to end the third period and head into the fourth with a four-point lead.
Tobias Harris posted 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, and Richardson had 18 points.
Horford, who was called for a Flagrant 1 foul on Brown with 7:01 left in the fourth, simply has to be better for the Sixers to win the series. We saw flashes of his passing ability and defensive versatility, but he didn't hold down the fort when Embiid sat as the Sixers would have hoped. He finished with six points, seven rebounds, six assists and three turnovers, and he did not close out the game.
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