The Celtics demolished the Philadelphia 76ers, 128-101, Wednesday night in Game 2 of their first-round playoff matchup, taking a 2-0 series lead.
Here’s what we saw:
Joel Embiid scored 34, but Enes Kanter didn’t let him get to his spots.
After Philadelphia’s Game 1 loss — a much closer result — Sixers center Joel Embiid proclaimed his 26-point, 16-rebound performance wasn’t enough.
“Whatever the stats are, I’ve got to do more,” Embiid said after the defeat. “I’ve got one job to do: It’s to carry us. I’m going to need my teammates to help me, but I’ve got to do more.”
Early into Game 2, it sure seemed like Embiid was ready to put the Sixers on his back. During his first stint on the court, he showed no problem getting what he wanted against Celtics starting center Daniel Theis. Embiid imposed his will in the paint on his first shot, attacked off the dribble on his next, maintained control of the ball throughout, and scored nine of Philly’s first 13 points. He and Theis both subbed out of the game midway through the first quarter.
When Embiid checked back into the game, however, Theis stayed on the bench. The Celtics instead sent in Enes Kanter, a matchup that had given Embiid trouble earlier in the regular season. Embiid’s production didn’t stop — he knocked down three straight jumpers outside of 15 feet — but none of his baskets came at the rim. He finished the quarter with 15 points, connecting on 6 of his 9 shot attempts, with the Sixers holding a six-point lead.
Kanter continued to keep Embiid away from the rim, making it difficult for him to establish an offensive rhythm throughout the remainder of the game. Embiid made only five more field goals following his commanding first quarter. He still finished with a game-high 34 points and 10 rebounds.
“The game is 48 minutes,” Embiid said after the game. “Whatever we did in the first quarter, we got to do for three more quarters.”
Boston’s bench finally shines.
With starter Gordon Hayward expected to miss approximately four weeks due to a right ankle sprain, Celtics coach Brad Stevens went deep into the rotation.
Kanter, Romeo Langford, Semi Ojeleye, Brad Wanamaker, and Grant Williams all logged significant first-half minutes. Boston’s lineup to start the second quarter featured only one starter, Jayson Tatum, alongside Wanamaker, Langford, Williams, and Kanter.
The group helped turn the team’s six-point deficit into a five-point lead.
“I never would have thought we would have stayed with that group in the second quarter that long, and to their credit, I couldn’t take them out,” Stevens said. “Our bench really took a game that was not going our way and changed it.”
Added Tatum: “The way the bench played at the end of the first and throughout the second quarter really just brought the physical toughness, on our end, back to the game. That was a big reason why we got back into the game and eventually took the lead.”
Tatum, sensibly, remained the primary source of offense, though others contributed when opportunities presented themselves. Kanter, for example, knocked down a wide-open three-pointer — his first since April 2019 — with the shot clock expiring. Wanamaker attacked an open lane to the basket for an easy reverse layup. Often maligned for their lack of offensive firepower, the reserves also made their impact defensively, helping keep the Sixers scoreless for a four-minute period.
Stevens credited the group for being “superstars” in their respective roles.
The Sixers do not have an answer for Jayson Tatum.
Tatum had quite the efficient shooting night, scoring a team-high 33 points in 31 minutes. He connected on 12 of his 20 field-goal attempts (60 percent) and 8 of his 12 three-point attempts (66.7 percent), including a 31-foot bank shot in the final seconds of the first quarter.
“I want to be that guy,” Tatum said. “I want to be able to make big plays, whether it’s scoring or making the right pass because I’m drawing attention.”
Sixers coach Brett Brown made a change to his starting lineup, swapping rookie Matisse Thybulle for Al Horford. While Thybulle is known for being a defensive pest, containing Tatum is where Philly really misses Ben Simmons, who is sidelined indefinitely after undergoing a knee procedure.
The Sixers have a whole host of problems.
After such an ugly performance, it’s hard to envision how Philly can steal a game from the Celtics.
As a result of the NBA’s “bubble” setup, the Sixers won’t have the benefit of returning to the Wells Fargo Center, where they lost only twice during the regular season. But their worries extend far beyond just the lack of home-court advantage.
Tobias Harris, who signed a five-year, $180 million deal this offseason, finished 4 of 15 Wednesday, botching several buckets a player signed to that contract should be expected to make. Horford, who inked a four-year, $109 million deal, was a shell of “Playoff Al,” turning in four points.
With two of the team’s big-money players underperforming, Brown’s coaching decisions are only exacerbated. In their pick-and-roll coverage, the Sixers have decided to keep Embiid at the rim while Boston’s big roams free on the perimeter. The result? Plenty of open looks for the Celtics. As point guard Kemba Walker noted, he hasn’t seen “that much space” in a “very long time.”
Brown will likely abandon the strategy in Game 3, especially after Embiid’s postgame comments.
“I know they want me to stay back on our pick-and-rolls and protect the basket, but they’ve just been coming off and making a lot of threes, so we got to make adjustments,” Embiid said. “Something’s got to change. It feels too easy. They’re just walking into those shots. We gotta fix that.”
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