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Do the 76ers Have a Chance Against Boston? Game 3 Provides Test of Character and Coaching Adjustments

By Matt Gregan, Sports Talk Philly Editor

Nothing went right for the 76ers in Game 2 of their first-round series against the Boston Celtics. Boston, led by 33 points from Jayson Tatum, did whatever they want against a demoralized 76ers defense. A lot of things have to change if the 76ers are to have a chance to come back in this series and avoid a first-round elimination. 

First, the 76ers' pick-and-roll defense must improve by leaps and bounds. Brett Brown has had the 76ers utilize a drop coverage style of defense on Boston's pick-and-rolls. Drop coverage is when the big man drops down into the paint and the guard attempts to fight around the screen, with the desired result being mid-range, low-percentage shots. 

The drop coverage has not worked this series, with Boston generating 1.13 points per pick-and-roll possession through the first two games of the series. Boston's players have mostly pulled up for open 3-pointers when coming around pick-and-rolls. The Celtics shot 19-of-43 from beyond the arc, and Tatum shot 6-of-9 on pull-up threes in Game 2.

Joel Embiid spoke after Game 2 about the need for a change in how the 76ers defend the pick-and-roll.

"I know they want me to sit back on pick-and-rolls and protect the basket, but they’ve just been coming off and making a lot of threes, so we’ve gotta make adjustments," Embiid said. "Either I’ve gotta come up and we’ve gotta scramble all over the place or something’s gotta change. It feels too easy. They’re just walking into those shots. We’ve gotta fix that."

Without Ben Simmons, everyone knew the 76ers would be handicapped on defense against a smaller, quicker Boston lineup. However, there are some changes the team can make to improve their defense against Boston. Brown said he was considering making changes in the ways the Sixers are defending Boston's pick-and-roll game.

“I think that you have to be smart about it,” Brown said. “The obvious answer is to bring 7-foot-2 out of the paint and bring 7-foot-2 up so that there is some level of pressure. The punishment behind it is real — rollers and scrambles and so on. If you look at how many baskets they scored out of the pick-and-roll as far as threes go, I think Tatum had three and I think Kemba had one. They are dangerous in a mid-range game, this is true. I feel like in the second half, we did do that with some success, but it wasn’t enough.”

Pick-and-roll defense has not been the 76ers' only issue through the first two games of the series. Philadelphia will need a more balanced effort on offense if they are to have a chance at getting back into the series. Embiid has averaged 30 points and 13 rebounds per game so far this series. The 76ers need to receive more from their supporting cast, beginning with Tobias Harris and Al Horford. Harris has averaged a meager 14 points per game on 33% shooting from the field while Horford has been a non-factor on offense (five points per game).

Perhaps the most critical and long-term issue that appeared after the blowout in Game 2 was the 76ers' lack of effort and motivation. After getting off to a good start (outscoring Boston 33-27 in the first quarter), the 76ers got punched in the mouth in the second and third quarters of Game 2 and failed to respond. The Celtics outscored Philadelphia 71-42 over that stretch, and by the end it was clear the Sixers were demoralized and playing with no effort.

There are some clear adjustments the 76ers can make to improve their issues on the floor against Boston, but the lack of effort shown in Game 2 is something much more difficult to solve. The 76ers were a much different team at home this season (31-4) versus on the road (12-26). Playing in front of the home crowd in Philadelphia gave the 76ers more energy and motivation, and it goes into the team's problem that they appeared to need the extra burst from the home crowd to be able to play well.

Now playing in the NBA bubble in Orlando due to COVID-19, the 76ers do not get the advantage of playing in front of their home crowd. Down 2-0 in their first-round series against the Celtics, the 76ers need to reach down deep for their motivation to get back into the series instead of relying on the energy brought by the Philadelphia faithful. Brown said his mission is to create a genuine belief in the team that they have enough talent and character to bounce back from the 2-0 hole they are currently in.

The 76ers need to find an internal motivation and desire to fight hard and bounce back in this series against the Celtics. They lack a vocal leader, which makes finding that internal motivation more difficult. However, Brown believes the team can find it before Game 3 on Friday.

"I think it’s going to come from different voices,” Brown said. “There is nobody in the locker room that is a kick-a-chair, swing-a-towel, flip-a-desk type of guy. And that’s not a bad thing — we’re all wired differently. And so Joel’s going to have his way where he can make the point or reinforce the point. … And a lot of time with Joel, it comes from on-court performance. Al Horford has the ability and willingness in a locker room to share a story of his 12 years in the NBA playoffs. Tobias Harris, who’s just (an) emerging voice, whether it’s talking about racial injustice, whether it’s talking about, ‘We better do better on defense,’ (whether) it’s a team meeting. He’s really emerging into that type of role.

"And then you’ve got the two young guys: Matisse Thybulle, who starts as a rookie in an NBA playoff game, and Shake (Milton) came from the G League and is our starting point guard. They too have a little bit of a story to tell. I think it comes from different voices, from different places. But ultimately, it’s gotta come. And I think that it will."

The 76ers know their backs are against the wall heading into Game 3, and they know they have to respond and take on the challenge of being down 2-0 against the Boston Celtics.

"I think that we need to make our presence felt a little more defensively, and really (take) on the challenge," Horford said on Thursday. "That is something that we talked about today in practice and something that we want to make sure that we are playing the way we know we are capable of, really setting the tone and really making it hard for them, and that is going to be our focus. Our backs are against the wall and we need to respond tomorrow."

Will the 76ers respond and fight their way back into the series? Only time will tell. Game 3 is scheduled for Friday at 6:30 p.m.

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