Instant Observations: Sixers Fail to Take Advantage of Closeout Opportunity, Drop Game 6 to Celtics

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) drives against Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) during the second quarter in game six of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

With a chance to close out the series, the Philadelphia 76ers fell short on Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center. They fell to the Boston Celtics 95-86 in Game 6.

Joel Embiid finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Tyrese Maxey scored 26 points and grabbed five rebounds. James Harden added in 13 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. The Sixers shot 36.1% from the field.

Marcus Smart led the way for the Celtics, finishing with 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Jayson Tatum finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Jaylen Brown added in 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. Malcolm Brogdon scored 16 points off the bench.

This series is going to a decisive Game 7 on Sunday back in Boston. Here are some instant observations from the loss:

– With their backs against the wall, the Celtics opened up the game with a haymaker. They built up a 15-3 lead just a few minutes into the action. The Sixers were playing tight and indecisive, missing 10 of their first 11 shots of the game. Boston also came out of the gate firing from 3-point range. The Sixers sent far too many double teams and Boston made them pay, knocking down multiple wide open 3-pointers. Over-helping and a lack of focus on off-ball defense has been an issue for the Sixers throughout this season. The Celtics punished them for that, starting the game shooting 9-of-14 from beyond the arc.

For a while, Maxey was the lone player producing offensively for the Sixers. He connected on multiple 3-pointers and had a tough finish over a good Brown contest. Coming off his best game of the series in Game 5, Maxey seems to have figured out how to successfully attack the Celtics’ defense. His 15 points in the first half played a huge role in keeping the Sixers in the game.

Once Maxey knocked down a few shots from long distance, the Celtics were forced to chase him off the 3-point line. This opened up opportunities for him to use his speed as a driver, something Boston’s defense struggled to handle.

Maxey also made a few good plays defensively. Early in the fourth quarter, he skied up for a block that ultimately did not count because of a Harden foul. On the next possession, he stonewalled Brown and stole the ball away. He still makes mistakes defensively, but ultimately has shown some real growth on that end of the floor this season.

– The Celtics made a lineup adjustment, inserting Robert Williams III into the starting five for Derrick White. This allowed them to run a two-bigs lineup, pairing Williams III next to Al Horford. Overall, the move worked out well for the Celtics. Williams III was able to roam away from P.J. Tucker and help defend the paint. This lineup works against the Sixers because Tucker is simply not able to make them pay consistently enough. He shot just 2-of-7 from beyond the arc.

Head coach Doc Rivers countered with an adjustment a few minutes into the second half, taking Tucker out and putting Georges Niang on the floor. Within a few possessions of being on the floor, Niang knocked down a 3-pointer. Unlike Tucker, Boston can not get away with leaving Niang, a more lethal outside shooter, alone in the corner. After making the switch, the Sixers went on a 16-4 run to take a two-point lead late in the third quarter. Niang finished the game with six points on 2-of-3 shooting from long distance.

– Boston’s two-bigs lineup made life more difficult for Embiid to work from inside the paint. The increased size combined with Boston throwing a ton of different looks at Embiid caused him to get off to a rough start. He did have some success in the low-post, although he did not look to consistently get the ball in established position. In the second half, he began to heat up some by facing up and going to work in the mid-range area. Embiid did continue to put his imprint on the game defensively, making a handful of impressive blocks.

While Embiid had an up-and-down night, the same can certainly not be said about his co-star. Harden had a few excellent games in this series, but he also had a few clunkers. His performance in this game could be added to the clunker category. He was ice cold throughout the night regardless of where he was on the floor. Driving to the basket proved to be an adventure for Harden. He exerted far too much energy looking to pass or draw fouls rather than aggressively hunting his own shot. He also was a turnover machine, particularly in the latter moments of the game. One of his lone positive plays was a dunk, just his second of the entire season, after breaking Smart down on the perimeter.

The Sixers managed to battle back into the game despite having a poor offensive showing. They ultimately fell short due in large part to Tatum going on a heater and some despicable offense in the final minutes. The Sixers scored just three points in the final 5:57 of the game, and two of those were on a Jaden Springer shot in garbage time. Tatum, after scoring just three points in the first three quarters, caught fire and scored 16 points in the fourth quarter. Despite that, this game remained up for grabs for the Sixers. However, both Embiid and Harden failed to come up big in the key moments. In order for the Sixers to win this series on Sunday, they will need significantly better games from their star duo.

– Some of the decisions Tobias Harris made in this game were criminally poor. He had a handful of brutal shots from around the rim, including an ill-inspired attempt at finishing an alley-oop in transition. Far too many of his shots were low percentage looks, something the Sixers could not afford considering their slow offensive start as a team.

While he failed to produce offensively, Harris turned things up a notch defensively in the second half. On consecutive possessions, he stripped the ball away from White and Malcolm Brogdon. He finished the game with two steals and two blocks.