For Sixers and their starting guards, margin for error now undeniably small vs. Celtics

Margin for error now undeniably small for Sixers and their starting guards originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

De’Anthony Melton was the best of the Sixers’ three guards in their Game 3 loss to the Celtics.

The Sixers’ sixth man had a strong game Friday night, playing high-quality defense on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and posting 14 points, eight rebounds and four steals.

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More of that from Melton would be great for the Sixers. More of what James Harden and Tyrese Maxey provided in Game 3 would almost certainly result in another second-round exit.

Now down 2-1 in their series against Boston, it would be very surprising if the Sixers can afford another 3-for-14 Harden outing or 4-for-16 Maxey performance. On the night Joel Embiid raised the Michael Jordan MVP Trophy, it was obvious that having a future Hall of Famer does not mean the Sixers can expect to survive mystifying decisions, missed jumpers, and everything else that put the team in a series deficit.

“… It’s hard for me to sit here and think about winning (MVP) when you’re down 2-1 and you’re just trying to find ways you can help and win games, and trying to bring your teammates along,” Embiid said after a 30-point, 13-rebound, four-block evening. “I think that’s the next step for me, to just help everybody else.

“We always talk about it: I’ve got to make the right plays, and I think I’m doing it. But you can’t shoot it for them. We’ve all got to be on the same page. For us to win — and I’ve said it the whole season — we have to be almost perfect. … We don’t have a lot of margin for error. Everybody has to show up and do their job, and that starts with me. I’ve got to be perfect.”


Harden wasn’t too far from perfect to open the series, scoring 45 points in the Sixers’ Game 1 win at TD Garden. Since then, he’s gone 5 for 28 from the floor and 2 for 13 from three-point range.

Robert Williams III is an outstanding shot blocker, Derrick White is great for a guard, and Tatum and Brown are big, athletic wings. Twice in the first half, Harden experienced Boston’s ability to erase what appear to be good shots around the rim.

Even with that context, Harden’s reluctance to shoot in the paint was still strange at times. In the third quarter, he made a late, odd decision to kick the ball out instead of taking a floater or continuing to drive in for a layup on 6-foot-3 Marcus Smart. In the fourth, much of the home crowd immediately groaned when Harden didn’t consider trying a layup on Tatum. That play worked out fine thanks to a Melton three.

“I don’t know,” Harden told reporters of the looks he passed up. “I’ve got to watch the game, but I’m pretty good on basketball instincts. I know when to score, I know when to pass, so I’m pretty sure a lot of them were the right play.”


Sixers head coach Doc Rivers also said he wanted to review the film, though he recognized lack of aggression as a broad problem for his team.

“I don’t know, I’ll go look,” Rivers said. “I thought there were a couple of times where we came out of a timeout and I really thought we had the lane. I thought we were trying to snake dribble more than just go straight down and make plays.

“That’s something we talked about — getting into the paint with force, with pace. And if they come, let’s make plays. Just didn’t think we did that. So we’ll figure it out. We’ll be good.”

Maxey was just 1 for 6 from five feet and in. His one interior make was a first-quarter reverse layup created by a swift drive in transition.

“Get him the ball more,” Rivers said. “He’s got to get the ball more, too. I got on him in the first quarter. There were two or three times where he had the ball and gave it up. There was one time where I think Jalen (McDaniels) had it at the top and he just stood in the corner.


“And I asked him, ‘If that was Kobe Bryant, do you think Kobe’s going to stand there? No, he’s going to come get the ball. And you’re one of our scorers. You’ve got to act like that all the time.’ In his defense, it’s hard. It really is. He doesn’t get the ball enough and we have to get him more involved.”

Regardless of whether Harden turns things around, it would indeed make sense for Rivers to be intentional moving forward about calling plays for Maxey and using him in tandem with Embiid as a pick-and-roll ball handler.

In general, the team should not need to manufacture desperation at this point. Though Melton and McDaniels were both good in Game 3’s first half and Georges Niang scored seven straight Sixers points early in the fourth quarter, a rotation change or two would be fair enough in Game 4. Shake Milton and Danuel House Jr. have only played 19.5 meaningful seconds combined so far this series. Milton shouldn’t be expected to save the day, but he’s a guard who can score and has previously helped the Sixers win playoff games. House is a willing wing shooter who likes to play in transition and is up for the challenge of guarding stars.

No strategic tweaks are likely to matter much without better guard play.


“I think players have to show up,” Embiid said. “I’ve got to do my job. Other guys, everybody knows their role. They have to do their jobs. Players have to show up. Obviously, you can make any adjustments you want. But if the players don’t execute, they don’t show up and we don’t make shots, that’s on us. … I’ve got to be better. We’ve all got to be better.

“We just haven’t been good enough the last two games. No sense of urgency. But it’s the small things. I think we’ve been fine guarding them in the half court. It’s just those loose-ball situations, offensive rebounds, and then they knock down a three or score off of it. It just changes everything.”

Embiid was asked how he specifically can help Harden.

“You just talk to him and you just keep telling him to keep shooting, be aggressive,” he said. “That’s why you can’t get too high and you can’t get too low. Some nights you’re going to make a lot of shots, a lot of tough ones, and some nights you’re not going to make ‘em.


“So it’s about finding other ways to impact the game. For example, for myself, if I’m not making shots, I know that I’ve got to take another step defensively. I’ve got to become like Bill Russell defensively to have a bigger impact. In that situation, that’s the way I see it. Got to get my teammates more involved.

“And as far as for him, obviously it’s up to him to figure out how to best help us. But like I said, he’s fine. Sometimes you make ‘em, sometimes you miss ‘em. We made a lot of shots in Game 1. The last two games, it hasn’t been going in. I have the trust in him. Just telling him to keep being aggressive and keep shooting.”