The Sixers have six consecutive wins and an early-season spot at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
With a 106-103 victory Wednesday night over the Celtics at Wells Fargo Center, the Sixers improved to 6-1 this season. They’ve yet to lose at home with Nick Nurse as their head coach. Boston fell to 5-2.
The Celtics’ comeback push in the final minutes culminated with a game-tying Kristaps Porzingis three-point attempt on their final possession. He came up short.
Joel Embiid had 27 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks and four assists.
Tyrese Maxey posted 25 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
Porzingis scored 29 points. Jayson Tatum had 16 points, 15 rebounds and six assists.
Following a 5-0 homestand, the Sixers will play their first in-season tournament game on the road Friday night against the Pistons. They’ll see the Celtics again in Philadelphia next Wednesday.
Here are observations on the Sixers’ first victory over Boston since their seven-game playoff series defeat last year:
Very different initial look against Embiid
Once the game found its normal rhythm, an intriguing schematic storyline was Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla’s decision to put 6-foot-5 Jrue Holiday on Embiid and use 7-foot-3 Porzingis primarily as an off-ball roamer.
The Sixers sometimes looked confident in how to beat that approach, like when Embiid got a post-up early in the shot clock, spun baseline by Holiday and slammed in a big dunk to give the team a 10-4 lead. However, the Sixers’ spacing and Embiid’s decision-making against the Celtics’ double teams were often far from perfect. Boston rattled off an 11-0 run that featured four fast-break points created by Embiid turnovers.
Once the Celtics went to their bench, they had a conventional matchup of Al Horford on Embiid. The reigning MVP grew more patient, recognizing he could at times manipulate Boston’s help defenders and wait for isolation chances to develop. Simply shooting over smaller players is often a decent option for Embiid, too.
He was never likely to duplicate his 48-point performance from Monday night against the Wizards, but Embiid was again strong overall and regularly tremendous protecting the rim.
The tape of the Celtics’ defense on him will be interesting for the Sixers to review. Embiid was critical in his postgame assessment.
“I was expecting it,” he said. “I thought we didn’t do a good job of reacting to it. All they were basically doing was trying to front me. I thought there were so many times we could’ve had a high-low, we just didn’t react (quickly) enough to make it happen. So that’s an adjustment for the next few games. … Sometimes they were just coming right away, and I thought we didn’t move the ball fast enough and we didn’t attack.
“We just kept getting stuck on finding passes instead of just attacking and creating shots for everybody. But I thought they did a pretty good job. They were fronting and they had one guy, whether it was Kristaps or Al, coming from the baseline and doubling. We’re going to watch the film and get better.”
Batum big off the bench
Just about everyone on the floor missed open jumpers early.
Boston began 1 for 8 from both the field and three-point range. Meanwhile, the Sixers came up empty on their first nine long-distance tries, including five by their starting backcourt of Maxey and De’Anthony Melton.
Offense was often a slog for the Sixers in the first quarter. They only forced two turnovers, generating few open-floor, defense-to-offense opportunities. When Paul Reed blitzed Tatum early in the second quarter and narrowly missed out on a steal, the four-time All-Star hit Sam Hauser for a wide-open three. A Horford jumper soon extended the Celtics’ lead to 11 points.
The Sixers’ bench then provided some necessary positive momentum.
Furkan Korkmaz had a down night, but Nicolas Batum and Reed were second-unit bright spots in the second quarter. Reed was all over the offensive glass and scored a spinning, hard-driving layup on Holiday. Batum carried over the sweet shooting from his Sixers debut, knocking down the team’s first three-pointer. He also was solid defensively, blocking a Porzingis layup and guarding sensibly on the ball against Tatum and Jaylen Brown. His 7-foot-plus wingspan is obviously an asset against Boston’s star forwards.
Robert Covington’s length is a plus in this matchup, too. He swatted the ball from Derrick White late in the second quarter, Melton picked it up, and Maxey profited seconds later with a layup ahead of the pack.
In illustrating the Sixers’ depth, Embiid named several players who didn’t appear in the second half.
“I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can play,” Embiid said. “We can go small, we can go big, we’ve got size. … I’ve heard for so long about how we didn’t have enough forwards, and now we have too many of them. We’ve got guys that can play.
“Marcus (Morris Sr.) can play. (Danuel House Jr.), he can really play. Even KJ (Martin), Furk … we’ve got a lot of guys that can get minutes on any team. I’m just glad I don’t have to make those decisions. That’s up to Coach to figure out who plays and who gets the minutes. I think it’s a good problem to have.”
With 1:07 left in the second quarter, Batum jogged straight to the locker room after he attempted to strip the ball from Porzingis on a dunk by the Boston big man and suffered a gruesome-looking right index finger injury. He was evaluated at halftime and cleared to return.
Batum ultimately played 26 minutes off the bench and had five points on 2-for-3 shooting, four rebounds, a block and a steal. He was a team-high plus-seven.
Oubre kept his starting spot and posted 14 points and eight rebounds. Nurse had him on the bench for the final nine minutes and change.
“Kelly was playing OK,” Nurse said, “I just really liked what Batum was giving us from a defensive communication standpoint.
“He was really making the right switches and covering up really good and things like that, so that was kind of my thought there. I just wanted to try to prevent them from (having) a barrage of threes at the end. We didn’t do very (well) there, but that’s what it was.”
Maxey keeps plugging away, comes through in fourth
Maxey’s persistence was encouraging.
He played through strange calls and missed jumpers, accepted the openings Boston presented him to his left hand, and pushed the pace. The 23-year-old’s defensive commitment was good, too. Maxey didn’t nail every defensive decision, but he consistently hustled and grappled against larger players.
Another poor Melton shooting night was a significant obstacle for the Sixers. Though Melton had gotten back on track vs. Washington, he had a rough outing again Wednesday. Melton dropped to 1 for 8 from the field when he blew a layup in the third quarter. Maxey was similarly luckless as a shooter in the third, going 0 for 4 from the field.
Still, with both those players off the floor, the Sixers had a fantastic finish to the period, outplaying Boston during a chaotic stretch. After Porzingis missed an uncontested dunk, Covington canned a second-chance three. The quarter concluded with a Patrick Beverley floater followed by Embiid rejecting a futile Payton Pritchard layup attempt.
Maxey extended the Sixers’ lead to 83-71 with a hoop on the Sixers’ first fourth-quarter possession. He was excellent with Embiid on the bench, frequently responding to Celtics baskets and keeping Boston from mounting a serious run. Among his standout plays was a smooth snake of a pick-and-roll, a downhill burst with his right hand, and a beautifully lofted-in runner.
As soon as Embiid checked back in, Maxey drained a crucial after-timeout three. Harris (17 points, nine rebounds) also made a couple of jumpers and the Sixers built their advantage to 102-87.
That didn’t spell a stable, smooth finish. The Sixers made mistake after mistake — fouls that gave the Celtics free points and stopped the clock; shaky possessions that ended with turnovers — and Boston capitalized. Tatum’s layup after a Melton giveaway trimmed the Sixers’ lead to just 104-100 with 61 seconds left.
Finally, Embiid hit a fadeaway jumper. Brown answered with a tightly contested three on Maxey, though. He then blocked Maxey’s shot on the ensuing possession, meaning Boston had an improbable chance to force overtime. The Sixers were relieved that an extra session wasn’t needed.
“Down the stretch, you’ve got to be able to handle the ball,” Maxey said. “We’ve got to make sure we take threes away.
“But all in all, a win’s a win, so we’ll take it.”