Instant Observations: Sixers Endure Game 2 Blowout by Celtics Despite Embiid’s Return to Lineup

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) heads to the bench during a timeout against the Boston Celtics in the third quarter during game two of the 2023 NBA playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After experiencing the high of defeating the Boston Celtics in Game 1 without Joel Embiid, the Philadelphia 76ers were brought back down to earth on Wednesday. The Celtics evened up the series 1-1 with a blowout 121-87 win in Game 2 at TD Garden.

Embiid, one night after being named the MVP for the 2022-23 season, returned to the lineup. He missed the previous two games with a right knee sprain. The big fella finished with 15 points, three rebounds and five blocks. James Harden finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Tobias Harris added in 16 points and seven rebounds.

Jaylen Brown finished with 25 points, three rebounds, four assists and two steals for the Celtics. Malcolm Brogdon added in 23 points on 7-of-15 shooting off the bench.

Game 3 of this Eastern Conference semifinals series is on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Wells Fargo Center. Here are some instant observations from the loss:

– Not much went right for the Sixers in Game 2. However, one of the lone positives for the Sixers was the way Embiid looked in his return to the court. He moved well, generally looking a lot better and smoother physically than most thought considering the injury and sizable layoff. Offensively, Embiid gradually shook off some rust and looked a bit better as the game went on. The biggest takeaway from Game 2 remains Embiid looking good physically.

The biggest way Embiid’s return to the lineup impacted the game was through his presence defensively. The Sixers’ interior defense was porous for large portions of Game 1. It did not take long to see how Embiid’s presence changes things on that end for the Sixers. He got back in transition to block a Marcus Smart layup attempt three minutes into the game.

Embiid was a machine defensively both through blocks or otherwise altering shots around the rim. No matter who he was tasked with defending, he handled it seemingly with ease. He recorded five blocks in the first half, with the most impressive one coming when he met Brown at the summit.

Embiid’s defensive performance was the lone thing keeping the game relatively close for the Sixers in the first half. The Sixers went into halftime down by eight points despite shooting just 1-of-13 from beyond the arc. Things only went more downhill in the second half with Boston building up an insurmountable lead. Embiid’s night was done early, he did not play at all in the fourth quarter.

– The biggest difference between the Sixers and Celtics in this game was in their ability to make shots. The Sixers could not hit water if they fell out of a boat. Irregardless of how open they were, the shots were just not falling. In an microcosm of how the game went, two of Harden’s 3-point attempts went all the way down before popping back out. The Sixers finished the game a horrendous 6-of-30 from beyond the arc.

It was a completely different outcome for the Celtics. While their overall shooting numbers are nothing special, they went on a heater in the third quarter. Boston shot 7-of-15 from 3-point range in the third quarter, effectively blowing the game wide open. The Celtics outscored the Sixers 35-16 in the decisive third quarter to take a 27-point lead into the final frame.

Sometimes the shots are not going to fall. The bigger issue occurred when the Sixers started letting their frustration seep over into other parts of the game. They were consistently out-hustled to loose balls. There was a play in the first half where four different Sixers players stood and watched as Derrick White snatched up an offensive rebound. He passed it back out to Al Horford, who canned the open 3-pointer. The Celtics are too good to allow the Sixers to get away with lapses in effort.

– Harden’s performance in this game was a far cry from his dominant 45-point effort in Game 1. He missed all six of his attempts from long distance. The Celtics defended him more with Brown in this game, resulting in less free space for Harden to take advantage of. Despite that, he still played with aggressiveness, effectively drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line. However, he ran out of gas in the second half, scoring just one point. Unlike leading into Game 1, he did not have an extended layoff to rest up going into this game. Only time will tell, but right now fans could not be blamed for having some concerns about Harden’s durability moving forward this postseason.

Tyrese Maxey, despite another night of poor outside shooting, showed some positive flashes as a scorer. He found some success using his speed to attack Boston’s defense both in transition and on drives to the basket in the halfcourt offense. After struggling against Boston during the regular season, there are definitely some good things to take away from his play to open this series.

– The Sixers received very little production from any of their role players in Game 2. P.J. Tucker, while playing with his usual level of grit, was far too hesitant in regards to letting it go from beyond the arc. Georges Niang brought nothing positive to the floor. When he is not clicking as a shooter, there is no reason to have him in the rotation in this series. He also had a head scratching moment in the second quarter, passing up on an open catch-and-shoot 3-pointer to instead drive into Smart’s chest around the free-throw line.

Head coach Doc Rivers should mix up the rotation some throughout the remainder of this series. Jalen McDaniels and Danuel House Jr. both bring defense and athleticism. Shake Milton can provide a mixture of scoring and ball handling off the bench. Whatever the rotation looks like, the Sixers need more production from their role players in the rest of this series.

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