Sixers Humbled, Defeated by Celtics in 5 Games

| A postmortem on what went wrong vs Boston, and what lies ahead in the offseason |

After an encouraging first round series win versus the Miami Heat, experience and depth caught up with the Sixers. Philadelphia fell in the 2nd round of the NBA playoffs to the Boston Celtics, whose team-wide maturity was on display in all four wins.

Game 1 was not too surprising of a result. Coming off 6 days of rest, the Sixers were rusty and the Celtics were energized by their home crowd. The hugest disparity was three point shooting; the Sixers couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn (5/26 from deep) and the Celtics were practically throwing the ball into a volcano of fire (17/35, including 7/9 from Terry Rozier). This trend continued for the rest of the series.

Game 2 started well, as the Sixers climbed to a 21 point first half lead. Boston stormed back with a 21-5 run of their own in the final four minutes of the first half. Brett Brown never called a timeout during that run, a questionable decision that he has since defended. It was still a hard fought game (Robert Covington score 29 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, 2 steals in his only double digit scoring game of the series) and possibly winnable had Ben Simmons scored more than a single point in what was his worst game as a professional.

“I think it was mainly what I did to myself,” Simmons said of his performance. “Mentally, I was thinking too much…Wasn’t just out there, flowing, playing the way that I play, which is free.”

Embiid didn’t have a great series either. His goggles were apparently bothering his peripheral vision to the point where he wore a different mask without them in Game 5. He struggled to score efficiently and Boston made him work a lot on defense, to the point where he was visibly fatigued. That fatigued added up in the form of bad passes and mental errors that Boston exploited so well. In Game 2, Embiid was playing with 5 fouls and basically escorted Al Horford to the clinching layup.

Horford, by the way, was the best player in the series. Despite being just 6’10” he routinely schooled Embiid and even had some clean blocks on the taller counterpart. It was a matchup that hugely swung the series in favor of Boston. In the biggest moments, Horford was at his best. Embiid got his, but had to exert himself so much that his defense lacked focus and small errors piled up.

Game 3 was the toughest pill to swallow for Philadelphia. Despite a miraculous buzzer beater by Marco Belinelli to send the game to overtime, awful late game execution cost them the game.  Plus, they jinxed themselves by shooting the confetti cannons early.

By Game 4 the Sixers became desperate. They replaced Robert Covington with TJ McConnell in the starting lineup. It turned out to be a good choice;  TJ scored a career high 19 points, and also collected 7 rebounds and 5 assists. He also started Game 5.

In the Game 5 finale, another back and forth affair, Embiid had a chance to tie the game late but couldn’t finish through the contact. It was emblematic of the entire series; faced with their toughest test of the season, the Sixers gave themselves a shot, but their chances were ultimately slim.

The most painful subplot of the series was Jayson Tatum playing insanely well. He clearly wanted to prove that the Sixers made a mistake in trading up for Markelle Fultz, who didn’t play a single minute in the series. Tatum is mature beyond his years and will be a major obstacle for the Sixers for a long time.

The secondary players for Sixers struggled as a whole. Covington had a truly brutal series. He shot 25% from three point range, and outside of Game 2 was a non factor on offense. He’s known to be a streaky shooter, but still brings value with defense. But in this series, the defense was nowhere close. Tasked with guarding the likes of Tatum and a….hobbled Jaylen Brown, apparently, Covington was simply outclassed, including on the winning basket by Horford in Game 3.

In fact, the Celtics routinely outclassed the Sixers athletically. They completely denied the Sixers transition opportunities that they usually thrived on. Other secondary players, like Marco Belinelli also struggled to shoot and were routinely targeted on defense by Boston. They fought through screens and constantly denied the Sixers space, especially at the 3 point line, where Philadelphia only shot 30%.

Despite a disappointing playoff exit, the Sixers made tremendous strides this year. They improved by 24 wins and gained some valuable winning experience for the future. Embiid and Simmons now understand the intensity and challenges that the playoffs bring. They’ll have a full, healthy summer to improve their games and come back strong.

The Sixers also face an important offseason from a roster building perspective. While inexperience was a part of the Sixers’ postseason failing, it became clear that they also need a third star who can create shots and consistently score. Embiid and Simmons have some glaring flaws in their games, but they still managed to win 52 games. Add another superstar to that rotation, and you have one of the best cores in the league.

LeBron James and Paul George are potentially free agents this summer, and some believe that Kawhi Leonard wants to be traded out of San Antonio and possibly to Philadelphia. Expect the Sixers to be actively involved in acquiring any of those players. They also have the Lakers’ first round pick, presumably in the 10-12 range.

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