In perhaps their biggest game of the young NBA season, the Sixers hosted the Boston Celtics, also 5-1, on Wednesday evening. Here’s what stood out in the Sixers’ narrow 106-103 win:
• It was a disappointing first quarter on both sides as both the Sixers and Celtics struggled to block shots. The Sixers shot 0-for-9 from three-point range in the period, while Boston went 2-for-10. While the numbers look brutal for the Sixers, they were mostly open numbers that they just couldn’t get down. It’s frustrating at the moment, but overall it’s a good sign that they’ve at least made it look good.
• Embiid was the only Sixer to get going early offensively, despite committing two turnovers. Embiid scored 10 points on four baskets and two free throws – with the first few shots coming against former Sixer Jrue Holiday, certainly the shortest player in recent memory, who was tasked with defending Embiid straight up.
• Robert Covington was accidentally hit in the face by Al Horford late in the first quarter and had to go to the locker room. However, he quickly returned to the bench and was available for the rest of the game.
• The Sixers got a great five-minute stint from Paul Reed to start the second quarter. He scored six points and grabbed four rebounds, three of which came on offense. He continues to build significantly in recent games as the Sixers continue to play positively with Embiid on the bench.
• Kelly Oubre Jr. continues to give the Sixers the energy they need at just the right time. He scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds in the first half alone, with most of his rebounds coming in the second quarter. It’s not just the production that stands out with Oubre Jr., but also the timeliness. It feels like his greatest performances come when the Sixers are experiencing something of a lull. An extremely valuable property.
• Tobias Harris was as strong offensively as usual in the first half – especially as a passer. He used his size and strength advantages to gain good looks. But defensively, he was able to showcase the versatility he offers head coach Nick Nurse. He opened the game defending explosive winger Jaylen Brown and quickly switched to 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis. His newfound defensive versatility makes life much, much easier for the Sixers.
• Tyrese Maxey got going in the second quarter, scoring a dozen in the period, including two three-pointers. It was a positive sign for the Sixers, as Maxey hasn’t been as explosive as a scorer in recent games as he was earlier in the season.
• Nic Batum suffered a pretty nasty finger dislocation late in the second quarter but was able to return to the game.
• The third quarter belonged to Embiid. He scored 13 massive points and commanded a very slow Sixers offense that could barely produce any offense without him. He hit a three-pointer over his nemesis in Horford, got his mid-range game going and hit a layup from Payton Pritchard to end the quarter.
• After his strong debut, Batum scored an early three-pointer but didn’t do much else of note. In the third quarter, Embiid starred, but Batum gave the Sixers some tremendous two-way minutes, the operative term being two-way. His ability to consistently make intuitive plays is perhaps his greatest skill.
• Covington gave the Sixers a nice boost in the third quarter, playing solid defense against Jayson Tatum and hitting a big three-pointer that gave the Sixers a huge run to end the quarter.
• This allowed the Sixers to make a crucial run to end the period that gave them a 10-point lead heading into the final frame. Embiid did most of the work, with Batum, Oubre Jr., Covington and Patrick Beverley each contributing. This is another example of Embiid’s ability to run lineups without much outside firepower.
• The Sixers played absolutely outstanding team defense across the board, and that was the main reason they were able to finish this game convincingly. For a team with a new coaching staff and several new rotation members, the communication and overall cohesion on this field has been impressive all season.
• The Sixers, however, made it stressful, as they are known to do. They almost fell apart in the final minutes of the game, but were able to pull ahead after a big jump from Embiid (followed by loud trash talk from former Sixers assistant coach and current Celtics assistant coach Sam Cassell) and a final defensive stand hold water.
• As mentioned, the main reason the Sixers were able to win this game was their defensive performance throughout the night. Embiid was, as always, a stalwart on the perimeter, but tonight the game ball should go to the wings – or the players defending Boston’s wings. Harris, Oubre Jr., Covington and Batum gave the Sixers massive minutes and limited the Celtics’ star duo of Tatum and Brown to just 27 combined points on 10-for-27 shooting. It represents one of the most impressive performances by Sixers defensemen for several years and was the main factor that led to the Sixers’ statement win.