Instant Observations: Sixers Waste Strong Embiid Effort, Fall to Celtics in Game 3

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) drives to the basket against Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) during the second quarter of game three of the 2023 NBA playoff at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

What began as a night of celebration ended in disappointing fashion. The Philadelphia 76ers dropped Game 3 to the Boston Celtics 114-102 on Friday night at the Wells Fargo Center. The Celtics now hold a 2-1 series edge.

Joel Embiid was presented with the 2022-23 NBA MVP trophy before the game to thunderous applause. He gave an incredibly emotional speech in which he shouted out his teammates, parents, his son Arthur, the fans and Luc Mbah a Moute.

On the court, Embiid finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, one steal and four blocks. James Harden added in 16 points, six rebounds and 11 assists.

Jayson Tatum had 27 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a block for the Celtics. Jaylen Brown finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

Game 4 of this series is on Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia. Here are some instant observations from the loss:

– After shaking off some rust in Game 2, Embiid came out of the gate playing much more aggressively. The Sixers’ opening possession ended with an Embiid jumper from the elbow off a good pocket pass from Harden. Embiid found early success attacking and getting inside the paint against a range of Boston defenders. The Celtics, lacking any defender who can match Embiid one-on-one, tried throwing a lot of smaller defenders and off-ball double teams against the big fella. The results were subpar, with Embiid scoring 12 points in the opening quarter.

Embiid also continued to put his imprint on the game defensively. In the first half, he recorded blocks on both Brown and Tatum, denying them at the rim. It did not look like Embiid was hobbled at all physically despite playing through a knee injury.

Embiid, especially with Harden’s cratering performance (more on that below), spent much of the game being the lone player who consistently impacted the game for the Sixers. He crashed the glass hard and played with a ton of effort on both ends of the floor. Despite lacking his usual touch in the mid-range, he fought through it to still torment Boston’s defense. Unfortunately, the Sixers’ supporting cast did not provide him any help.

– When the starting backcourt combines to score just 29 points on 7-of-30 shooting, you know it is a bad night for the Sixers offensively. Harden, after lighting it up in Game 1, came crashing back down to earth in dramatic fashion. He began the game attacking like his usual self, although multiple of his shots were swallowed up by Boston’s strong interior defense. However, it soon became clear he got flustered and lost his confidence. For large portions of the game, it felt like Harden morphed into Ben Simmons. He was able to get by his defender at the point of attack, but after getting into the paint he completely stopped looking to shoot. It got to the point where there were multiple audible groans from the Philadelphia faithful.

Harden’s playmaking was also mostly atrocious. He was slow to read the floor while also being generally hesitant in his decision making. There were far too many plays where Harden committed a poor turnover (he finished with five on the night) that led to Boston running out the other way. The Sixers committed 14 turnovers, leading to 20 Boston points. On multiple fronts, Harden’s indecision and lack of willingness to shoot cost the Sixers in a major way.

Tyrese Maxey’s performance was not much better. He once again struggled to get anything going, jacking up one missed 3-pointer after another. While he usually also presents a challenge for opposing defenses with his ability to drive to the basket, he spent much of the game out of control. Some of his looks were good, but the shots continued to not fall. At some point, the young guard will likely break out of his funk against the Celtics. Hopefully that happens before the end of the series.

The Sixers, now finding themselves down 2-1 in this series, simply need a better effort from both Harden and Maxey. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for the Sixers to come back and win the series while receiving such meager production from their starting backcourt.

P.J. Tucker had an up-and-down night. The Celtics did not bother to defend him, packing the paint while banking on his hesitance to shoot. Their strategy worked in the opening few minutes, although head coach Doc Rivers was quick to take him out of the game for De’Anthony Melton. Melton continued to string together solid performances. His combination of shooting ability and defense makes him perfect for facing a team like the Celtics. He finished the game with 14 points (4-of-7 shooting from 3-point range), eight rebounds, four steals and a block.

While Melton had another strong game, Tucker also managed to pick things up a bit throughout the night. He knocked down three shots from beyond the arc, effectively making Boston pay for leaving him alone in the corner. Tucker also made a few nice hustle plays, diving for loose balls and being a pesky defender.

– For the second consecutive game, it felt like Boston came down with nearly every 50-50 ball. However, unlike in Game 2 it was mostly not due to a lack of effort from the Sixers. The Celtics, on some of these plays, just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately for the Sixers, many of these plays proved to be backbreaking. For every time the Sixers went on a run in the second half, the Celtics would recover a contested loose ball or score off a possession where they had multiple offensive rebounds.