Instant Observations: Sixers Miss Closeout Chance in Game 6 vs Celtics

The Sixers missed a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals in Game 6, lost 95-86 to the Celtics and set up an essential Game 7 on Sunday.

Here’s what I saw.

The good

• Arguably the most important moment of the game for the Sixers came three minutes into the third quarter when Doc Rivers called a time-out to pull PJ Tucker out in favor of Georges Niang. Consider how unlikely that set is – most people wanted Niang out of the rotation early in this series, and few believed he would be playable at any point in this match.

But as the Celtics tried to make the double-big lineup work, Rivers brought in someone Boston couldn’t ignore on the sidelines. Suddenly, the Sixers were going into their sets, executing pick-and-rolls and spotting gaps in a Boston defense that had looked nearly impenetrable for over two quarters.

The distance he provided would not have mattered if Niang had simply been destroyed at the other end, and when his presence on the field forced the Celtics to move away from the Two-Big lineup, that had to be everyone’s concern Red, White and Blue of the Sixers. But Niang kept his end of the bargain there, including one possession where he cornered Jayson Tatum and forced a loss of possession from the Celtics’ star wing.

To win an NBA championship, you have to eventually win over most of the roster. Niang has been a formidable, crucial player for the Sixers in many regular-season games, and Rivers trusted him for the playoff’s most important spot to date.

• The Celtics looked on course for a goal in the first five minutes of the game, disrupting the Sixers on offense with their two-big lineup that was pulled from cold storage just before the start of the season. And all it took for the Sixers to break out of that early panic was a single defensive play from Tyrese Maxey, who jumped onto a passing lane and made it to the basket alone, setting up a 9-0 run for Philadelphia.

Maxey was pretty much the only one who seemed ready for the game in the first half, prevailing whenever and wherever, perhaps to his own detriment. As Doc Rivers has mentioned in this series, there were times when he came to the surface and didn’t realize that he should be looking for someone on the edge rather than pushing the problem on the edge. We saw some of that on Thursday as Maxey tried to balance the slow and stagnant offense Philadelphia was playing elsewhere.

But, be Persistence as a driver would pay off in the end, also because Maxey’s shot was his main contribution of the game. Otherwise, the Sixers didn’t have much to offer from deep – the Harden/Embiid/Harris trio had a combined 0/7 from deep midway through the third quarter and the game all but begged for an outside threat. It was Maxey who provided it.

As he rolled from deep, Maxey forced the Celtics to chase him to the line and close hard, putting their bigs in the unenviable position of hitting him on the rim and then returning to the rim. He put Horford and Williams in the blender a time or two and flew right past them for buckets on the edge that were hard for others to get.

And I never thought I’d ever say that, but man, Maxey has done a lot of defense against the Celtics this series. Asking him to switch to players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown sounds like a recipe for disaster and brings back memories of the playoffs of the past when the Sixers were wiped out by that very wing combination. But Maxey has struck past his full weight, making disruptive plays off the ball while also getting into the chests of larger players on the touchline. Hats off to this young man.

The bad

• There are a lot of places and people to blame in this game. But an honest account of what went wrong in the first half begins with your two frontline stars appearing unready and sweeping the rest of their team-mates with them.

When Joel Embiid began playing purposeful, physical basketball at the bottom post, the Sixers began to move forward, in part because he could foul both Al Horford and Robert Williams III. But getting him the ball was a problem they struggled with for most of the game, as Boston’s double big lineup basically allowed the Celtics to play Embiid as a triple team (or at least a double team) to use. Hungry for touch, Embiid was getting further and further away from the rim. Eventually, early in this game he had to settle for a lot of hard/long jumps, but he couldn’t find the reach.

I wasn’t too keen on the plan either. The Sixers didn’t run much pick-and-roll in this configuration early on, perhaps because they expected the Celtics to narrow the ground and direct the offense to PJ Tucker in the corner. But if you live in fear that Tucker keeps getting candid looks there, you probably shouldn’t bring him into play against that look. That’s the shot to trust him with, and he struggled with it early on, leading to even slower, clunkier isolation basketball in the middle of the court.

Actually a short detour…

• Boston’s two-big formation works in this game when corner-walking player Robert Williams fails to capitalize on open threes the Celtics are giving him. The big storyline was simple: if PJ Tucker pulls off his three-pointer, Boston will have a hard time getting away with that style. Unfortunately for the Sixers, Tucker stayed cold most of the night, and Boston had to pack the paint to stop the Sixers’ bread-and-butter skirmish midfield.

This isn’t a “if you make enough threes, they’ll protect you” situation, not at this point with the season on the line. The Celtics would give Tucker as many open threes as the Sixers wanted him to allow, and either he would make them or the Sixers would have to trade him out.

That moment came just minutes into the third quarter when Rivers had seen enough and brought on Georges Niang.

Back to the big two…

• It didn’t help that Harden was struggling at the other end of Philadelphia’s top link, struggling to generate downward momentum and producing some junk in the first half while praying he would be accorded a foul. In the first half, a non-call might have bothered him, but most of his troubles stemmed from failed junkball attempts, with Harden getting a little too sweet instead of going hard to the brim.

(Notably, Harden’s best moment came in the first half when he beat his man on the rim and challenged Horford to challenge him on the summit, with Horford opting to watch Harden hit one while dealing with foul problems struggled.)

Even when the Sixers had flawless ground clearances and made decent encounters in the middle of the field, the Sixers’ star combination squandered that opportunity. Harden made no major attempts to attack the Celtics after breaking through the first line of defense, and Embiid didn’t put enough pressure on Boston below the elbows, even after they moved away from the double-big lineup.

Harden spent most of that game standing on his head and hoping for a call. Embiid was better, but certainly not a world-shattering star and nowhere near good enough to rule out a team like the Celtics. They will take this loss because they are the pairing that will start the offensive. If they look like this on Sunday, they’re cooked.

• Tobias Harris switched back to the other side of the spectrum on Thursday night after a resurgent, albeit failing, performance in Boston. That was worse for him – poor finish at basket, nothing to offer as a defender, leaky defense at the other end and little more than the occasional rush game.

A pivotal turning moment came in the first half when the Sixers got a stop and James Harden fired a nice pass across the floor that Harris was able to complete without a break. But he missed the scoring opportunity, catching the moment, and Boston scored on the ensuing possession, a five-point shot on top of the importance you place on momentum.

Harris managed some good defensive moments in the third quarter, taking out several Celtics drivers to send the Sixers the other way, but he undid that work with offensive ineptitude and some poor decisions against the Celtics’ big wings.

• De’Anthony Melton made one of the best plays of the season in the third quarter of that game, hitting an insane offensive rebound and somehow managing to toss an on-the-money pass to Georges Niang in the corner while still frozen in time in the air. The combination of length, jumping ability and coordination that contributed to this was amazing.

Unfortunately, Melton was cold in the arctic tundra and utterly killed them in the fourth quarter in a period that could have iced the game for Philly. Melton being virtually unplayable at this point was tough, as you’d rather have your defense out there than have to protect Niang.

the ugly

• A terrible performance by officials early in the game regardless of how the Sixers were playing. They put in a terrible performance on a goalkeeping decision that Embiid flawlessly blocked, missed a back and forth move from Jaylen Brown that was easily spotted from the opposite side of the field and missed Marcus Smart, who wrapped Embiid around the wrist while he was around struggling with a loose ball, on a ball possession where Embiid ended up being flagged down for a foul.

Some of the other calls are debatable, but this was a glaring mistake:

Not nearly! And then we had the clusterf*** where the Sixers took two no clear free throws, the officials let 30 seconds and a check pass, and then Tyrese Maxey had to go back to the line and null the free throw. free throws once again. Absolutely terrible work by the entire crew.

• If Jayson Tatum was anything like a backup basketball player, the Celtics would have won that game at halftime. His first halves in that streak were truly disgusting, and he topped them all with a 0-on-10 stinker that almost single-handedly kept the game within reach.

Of course he was also the guy who cleared it up during the crisis.

Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleNeubeck

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