Sixers vs. Celtics: Joel Embiid, Sixers can't quite pull off miracle against Boston

3 observations after Embiid, Sixers can't quite pull off miracle finish originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Joel Embiid and the Sixers came close to pulling off a miracle against the Celtics on Saturday night.

Embiid, who posted 41 points and 12 rebounds, hoisted a nearly full-court heave after Jayson Tatum's clutch long-range jumper put the Celtics up three points.

He made it ... but released the shot just after the final buzzer.

The Sixers fell to 39-20 this season and 0-3 against the top-seeded Celtics with a 110-107 loss at Wells Fargo Center.

Jaylen Brown led Boston with 26 points.

Dewayne Dedmon missed a second straight contest with left hip tightness. Sixers head coach Doc Rivers said pregame that Dedmon will likely sit out the next “couple of games” but that the team doesn’t believe his injury is “serious.”

Next up for the Sixers is a Monday night game in Philadelphia vs. the Heat. Here are observations on their narrow loss to the Celtics:

Nice carryover for Harris, Tucker 

Both Tobias Harris and PJ Tucker brought the qualities they’d delivered in the final minutes of the Sixers' comeback win Thursday over the Grizzlies right away against Boston.

Harris was ready to fire from three-point range and knocked down a pull-up jumper to give the Sixers a 7-0 lead. Tucker sunk a corner three, too.

The Sixers pushed the pace as a team in the early going, for better and for worse. They committed a few rushed turnovers that helped the Celtics get rolling in transition. Still, the general idea of putting pressure on Boston’s defense and not having to dump the ball into Embiid every possession was sound. Embiid even made a bold venture forward with the ball, though he got called for a double dribble.

Tucker rebounded very well in his opening stint and the 37-year-old’s scrappiness on the glass was valuable. He grabbed six first-quarter rebounds and set James Harden up for a three immediately after one of his offensive boards. Tucker won’t win most straight-up rebounding duels against bigger players, but he’s shown he can still snag tone-setting rebounds and pull down important, “who wants it more” sort of boards. He remained active and effective as a rebounder, breaking his previous season high of 10 late in the second quarter. Tucker finished with 16 rebounds.

With the exception of consecutive missed free throws late in the quarter, Harris was good throughout the first. Both Harris and Embiid played the entire quarter and combined for 20 first-period points. Boston closed the quarter on a 9-2 run, though, and a Robert Williams III baseline jumper at the buzzer cut the Celtics’ deficit to 30-28.

Major second-unit struggles 

For the second straight game, Rivers began with Paul Reed at backup center before turning to Tucker.

The Sixers struggled early in the second quarter with Harden surrounded by four bench players. It clearly made sense to avoid any all-second unit minutes given Boston has multiple starter-level players who come off the bench, but the Sixers were still second-best across the board. Rivers called timeout after a Malcolm Brogdon three built the Celtics’ lead to 39-32.

He subbed Reed out and played Tucker at the five for the next 82 seconds. That brief stint was positive offensively. Tyrese Maxey converted a driving hoop, Harden assisted a Jalen McDaniels layup and drew two free throws, and the Sixers were in slightly better shape when Embiid checked back in.

Embiid soon chased down Marcus Smart and rejected his shot emphatically. Unlike Thursday, he was also his usual imposing, efficient self offensively. Al Horford tends to be sturdy and smart against Embiid in the post, but the Sixers added some useful offensive variety in the second quarter. Instead of running everything through Embiid in the post, they featured him all over the floor. He executed a slick fake handoff before driving in for a layup, drilled a face-up jumper on the right wing, and displayed his diverse skills.

The Sixers put Embiid alongside four bench players late in the third quarter and that unit was ineffective. Another bench-heavy lineup featured Harden to begin the fourth quarter, but it was short-lived. Reed got stripped going up for a layup, Derrick White nailed a three to give the Celtics an 85-78 edge, and Tucker replaced Reed only 70 seconds into the fourth quarter.

The box score Saturday night included a few extreme plus-minus lines; the Sixers were outscored by 23 points in McDaniels' 15 minutes, by 22 in Georges Niang's 13. Those numbers never tell the whole story, but the Sixers' bench was indeed quite a bit worse than the Celtics'.

White played a key role in Boston's win just as he'd done earlier in February, scoring 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting. Collectively, the Sixers' bench had 12 points on 6-for-18 shooting (0 for 5 from three-point range).

Embiid almost carries Sixers late

The Sixers were sharp to start the second half. Harris scored the third quarter’s first five points and threes by De’Anthony Melton and Harden extended the Sixers’ lead to 67-52.

After playing just 13 minutes against Memphis, Melton received 25. If the Sixers face Boston in the postseason, they’ll hope Melton’s ability to “guard up” is beneficial. Tatum and Brown are always tough to handle, but the Sixers appear capable of defending that duo relatively well. Maxey ultimately played the large majority of the fourth quarter over Melton on Saturday.

Boston went on a 7-0 run immediately after falling behind by 15 points, but Embiid snapped it by plowing through a thicket of Celtic arms and making an and-one layup. He had a similarly forceful, determined drive a couple of minutes later.

However, those plays in no way deflated the Celtics. In fact, Boston seized momentum in large part due to Horford's sharpshooting. The former Sixer hit four threes in under four minutes late in the third quarter. Meanwhile, off shooting nights by Harden (21 points, 5 for 16 from the floor) and Maxey (eight points, 4 of 10 from the floor) hindered the Sixers. They went down 95-85 with 7:11 to go in the fourth when Brown stole the ball from an unsuspecting Embiid and coasted in for an easy layup.

Still, the Sixers seemingly have a chance whenever Embiid's out there. He made three mid-range jumpers and six free throws over the next several minutes. That brought the Sixers to within a point of Boston, and they took an improbable lead when Embiid blocked a Brown layup attempt and Maxey then jetted the other direction for a lay-in.

Horford canned yet another triple and Boston took a 107-103 edge on a Tatum tip-in with a minute left. Again, though, the Sixers went to Embiid in the clutch and got what they needed. Brown fouled him on a fadeaway jumper and Embiid drained both foul shots to tie the game at 107-all, setting up the high-drama final seconds.

The Sixers will try to prevent being swept in the regular-season series when they host the Celtics on April 4.