3 observations after Sixers finish 0-2 back-to-back by falling to Celtics

3 observations after Sixers finish 0-2 back-to-back by falling to Celtics originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

On Tuesday night, the Sixers' winning streak ended at eight games. At the conclusion of Wednesday night, they've got their first losing streak of the season.

The team fell to a 117-107 defeat at Wells Fargo Center to the Celtics, dropping to 8-3 overall. Boston improved to 9-2.

Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey were the Sixers' joint top scorers with 20 points apiece.

The Celtics got 29 points from Jayson Tatum and 27 from Derrick White.

The Sixers were without Kelly Oubre Jr. (fractured rib) and Nicolas Batum (personal reasons). Boston’s Jaylen Brown (non-COVID illness) and Kristaps Porzingis (right knee contusion) were sidelined as well.

Sixers head coach Nick Nurse said pregame that he’d talked recently with Batum and the French forward indicated he might join the team for its game Friday night in Atlanta. According to Nurse, Batum said he’d be in Brooklyn on Sunday afternoon when the Sixers visit the Nets.

Here are observations on the Sixers' loss to the Celtics:

Three-point volume central again

De’Anthony Melton drilled a corner three on the game’s first play, carrying forward the momentum from his 30-point outing Tuesday vs. the Pacers.

Meanwhile, Maxey had another slow scoring start. After posting zero points in Tuesday’s first quarter, he did the same against Boston and missed all three of his field-goal attempts.

Al Horford started and played his usual solid defense on Embiid, who was listed as questionable for a second straight game with left hip soreness. Embiid did not look his most spry or explosive to complete the back-to-back.

“It’s fine,” Embiid said after the game. “I’d say especially defensively, I haven’t been moving as well as I was the first few games. ... No excuses. Just keep playing.”

The Sixers needed players to hit long-range jumpers around the reigning MVP. That’s typically the case, but it felt especially true Wednesday given Boston often beats its opponents behind the arc and the Sixers’ three-point volume has been low. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Sixers entered Wednesday’s action 29th in the NBA in three-point frequency. The Celtics ranked second.

The Sixers did ultimately improve upon their season-low three-point volume of 22 attempts against Indiana, getting up 30 long-range shots vs. Boston, making 11 and declining fewer good looks. The Celtics still gained a major advantage on threes, though. They fired up 50 and sunk 18.

“It felt like they were getting a pretty good look at a three almost the entire third quarter,” Nurse said. “Most of it was getting in a rotation and not keeping the ball in front of us — drive-and-kick game. We just didn’t do a good enough job of limiting that number. Fifty’s a big number to give up, right? That’s really the difference in the game, the three-ball numbers.”

Robert Covington shot 0 for 5 from three-point range, though his inside-the-arc offense was a surprising positive early for the Sixers.

Covington, who started both legs of the back-to-back, threw down a couple of put-back dunks within the first four minutes. The 32-year-old forward also converted a leaner and made two free throws after a nice cut along the baseline late in the shot clock.

“Just making myself available, being aggressive a little bit, and getting the feel for everything,” Covington said after his 16-point, six-rebound game. “The more I get comfortable within our offense, I’ll be able to do a lot more. I’m still finding my place. ... I didn’t really play last year, so it’s like still trying to get your feet wet. Everything will come around.”

Second-quarter Springer 

The Sixers’ bench had a dreadful first stint.

Boston’s lead swelled to 30-18 when Jrue Holiday intercepted a Marcus Morris Sr. pass and cruised in for a layup. Patrick Beverley missed a floater on the Sixers’ final first-quarter possession and fouled White on the ensuing fast break.

The Sixers’ bench players shot 0 for 7 from the floor in the first quarter and the team trailed 39-22 after a Tatum jumper to begin the second. Again, it’s fair to assume that a Sixers team with both Batum and Oubre would’ve complemented Embiid better and simply had greater talent on the floor.

Jaden Springer did the trick for the Sixers’ bench. To start the second quarter, Nurse subbed in Springer, who’d played five minutes total over the Sixers’ past four games. The 21-year-old guard made a corner three right away. He then stole the ball in the backcourt — the Sixers’ first steal or block of the night — and went in for an unencumbered dunk. Impressive work from a youthful player to make such an immediate impact.

“You don't know when you’re going to be on the court,” Springer said on Nov. 3. “That’s probably the biggest thing: Whenever your name is called, being able to go out there, be ready and produce — no matter if it’s two minutes, three minutes, five, whatever. Just go out there and play as hard as you can.”

Springer earned himself the entire second quarter. Though he made a few mistakes offensively, including a travel and a moving screen, he continued to hunt the ball, apply defensive pressure and provide necessary energy.

Nurse was asked postgame about whether Springer has shown he's deserving of more minutes going forward.

“Yeah, he probably is,” Nurse said. “He certainly did everything he could possibly do in his minutes tonight. Again, I’ve still got to learn a lot of what’s going on with this team. I think maybe on a night like tonight, when it is a back-to-back, that we look at some fresh bodies.

“I think we do have some guys that we probably count on regularly. But heavy schedule and all that kind of stuff, it might be a good idea to just try different rotations on back-to-backs.”

Thanks in part to Springer, the Sixers’ defensive activity surged in the second quarter. Covington nabbed two steals in quick succession, Paul Reed leapt high to swat a Tatum layup, and Boston’s offense didn’t appear as comfortable.

Reed’s first made three-pointer of the season trimmed the Celtics’ lead to 49-45. Tobias Harris closed the second quarter strong, tallying five straight Sixers points late in the period. The Sixers overtook Boston and built a 62-57 lead early in the third quarter.

Too many flaws for Sixers to overcome

Three Horford triples over the first 5:01 of the third lifted the Celtics. The last one put Boston up 70-69, and Tatum then swished an impossible-to-guard, superstar's fadeaway jumper over Harris.

A Nurse timeout didn't stem the tide. Following two missed Beverley foul shots late in the third quarter, the Sixers conceded a wide-open corner three to Holiday that gave the Celtics an 83-75 edge.

Along with those sorts of deflating sequences, the Sixers' inability to exploit the Celtics' swarming defense on Embiid hurt. Seconds after cutting to the rim and catching a pass from Embiid, Beverley found himself open for a three that he shot well long. Beverley, Morris, Danuel House Jr. and Furkan Korkmaz combined to go 0 for 9 from the floor. A decent performance from one or two of those players would've likely given the Sixers a strong chance to win.

“I’d say it’s been bad the whole season,” Embiid said of the Sixers' minutes late in the first and third quarters with him surrounded by bench players. “Usually, we’ve had a good run, especially in those minutes with me on the floor with any four guys. But lately — I don’t know why — it’s been a problem. But then again, we’re pretty limited — but guys are working hard. We’re also missing a couple key guys. Nic has been helping since he’s been here, and obviously Kelly.

“It’s not an excuse, we’ve just got to be better. We’ve just got to figure it out. A lot of teams, they decide to just double me. Obviously their game plan is to double and make everybody else beat them. ... I’ve got to make better reads. We’ve just got to take advantage of it.”

White tends to show his All-Defensive chops vs. Maxey. He limited the 23-year-old's touches and chances to drive downhill, making almost everything taxing. Maxey again seemed to be frustrated at times with how much physicality was permitted against him.

Maxey initially wasn't very aggressive with Embiid out to start the fourth quarter. On a couple of possessions, the Sixers ran dribble weave actions that wound up with White successfully denying Maxey the ball. However, everyone else contributed for the Sixers' offense early in the fourth. Springer pocketed another steal from Tatum and slammed home a dunk, and a Melton transition three cut Boston's advantage to 89-88.

The game was still tight when Embiid checked back in, but the Sixers then got two unproductive possessions from their stars, which proved costly.

An Embiid turnover led to Tatum storming up the court for an and-one layup. Maxey then zoomed in from the baseline to the rim, but Horford rotated over and blocked his fourth shot of the night. White made that rejection sting even more with a straight-on three-pointer that built the Celtics' lead to seven points.

With Boston's drive-and-kick game humming down the stretch, that was too large a hill for the Sixers to climb.

“They came out and played well,” Covington said. “We played pretty (well), just didn’t make enough stops that we needed down the line and that’s what cost us the game, pretty much. But ... it gives us an idea of what we’re going to have to go against us. We know that they’ve had many battles, so you know what that team is capable of.”