PHILADELPHIA — Celtics guard Marcus Smart scanned a stat sheet after this 117-109 loss to the 76ers and wondered how his team could have a chance when Philadelphia big man Joel Embiid attempts 21 free throws, as he did Wednesday.
“It is tough, especially when we’ve got our hands up a lot of the times and he flails and gets the call,” Smart said. “And then down on the other end we’ve got our guys attacking the rim, getting a lot of contact and we’re just not getting the whistle. It’s tough to play like that. It’s tough. If the roles were reversed I’d do it every time. I mean, I’d be on [my game], too, if every time I threw my arms up or every time I got touched I’m going to the free throw line.”
The Celtics are hardly the only team with an Embiid problem, but they simply don’t have the size or strength needed to slow him down, especially when he is playing at an MVP level, as he is now.
He overpowered and outmuscled the Celtics at every opportunity, converting 12 of 19 shots and 17 of 21 free throws. By game’s end, Celtics big men Tristan Thompson, Daniel Theis, and Grant Williams had combined for 15 fouls, mostly from unsuccessfully trying to combat Philly’s All-Star big man.
When point guard Kemba Walker was asked about Embiid’s free throw parade, though, he chose acknowledgment over sour grapes.
“Embiid is smart, man,” Walker said. “He knows how to get fouled. He understands that part of the game and he’s been doing that for a while now, having guys foul him. He’s a huge body. It’s not much you can do but to foul him sometimes.”
The score was tied at 105 before Sixers guard Danny Green hit a 3-pointer from the right corner with 3:53 left. The Celtics lingered, but Philadelphia entered the free throw penalty early in the period, and it was able to use the edge down the stretch, with 10 of its final 15 points coming at the line.
Jaylen Brown had 26 points for Boston, Smart added 25, and Theis had 23 points and 11 rebounds off the bench.
Observations from the game:
▪ Walker was once again limited to about 20 minutes as he works his way back after missing the first 11 games with knee pain.
He poured in 17 points on 5-of-6 3-point shooting in just 12 first-half minutes. He started both quarters before subbing out about midway through. But aware that this game would probably be close, Celtics coach Brad Stevens told Walker that he planned to shift the timing of the stints in the second half so he could be a closer.
Walker started the third quarter on the bench and checked in with 1:30 left. So by sitting out the last five minutes of the second quarter, then going through halftime, and then sitting for more than 10 minutes of the third, Walker was off the court for about an hour of real time.
His three-minute third-quarter stint carried into the fourth quarter before he took another break and came in for the final five minutes. But he could never regain his rhythm after the lengthy break, finishing the second half 1 for 7 with 2 points and two turnovers.
“It was tough,” Walker said. “But I knew. [Stevens] told me early, so I was fine with it. I think it was definitely kind of hard to get my rhythm again, but at the same time, I’m just happy to be able to play with my teammates and just trying to get better. I’ll be all right. I’m just going to keep playing hard and do what I can to help the team be successful.”
The most encouraging news for the Celtics remains that Walker appears to be cutting and moving freely, with no hindrance and no sign of pain.
▪ While Embiid’s free throw parade was too much for Boston to overcome, it wasn’t totally surprising. He averages nearly twice as many free throws per game as the closest Celtic, and his combination of brute force and craftiness gets him rewarded. Furthermore, the Celtics didn’t help themselves by twice getting into the free throw penalty early.
Smart, of course, has developed his own reputation as a flopper, and when his postgame comments were relayed to Embiid, the 76ers big man couldn’t help but find the humor.
“Marcus Smart just told me that I flail a lot?” he said. “Come on. I’m sure he knows himself and he knows his game, too. He does a lot of that. And I don’t think I do. I mean, if you watch basketball and if you’re a student of the game and if you actually pay attention during the game, we all see. Every single foul, I get fouled. They probably don’t call all of them.”
▪ Stevens once again started Grant Williams alongside Thompson, allowing Theis to anchor the post for the second unit and slide back to the center position, where he is most comfortable. He and Walker had a nice stretch in the two-man-game in the second quarter, exploiting veteran big man Dwight Howard in pick-and-roll actions.
“They’ve had a great connection from day one,” Stevens said. “If you go back and watch last year and how Theis finds Kemba both in transition and in the half court and how Kemba I think has a good feel for the speed of his rolls, where he’s going to be, when he needs to be there, all that stuff, that was one of the reasons why I thought Theis, really at the start of last year, really separated himself.”
Theis said that Walker’s ability to drain pull-up jumpers on pick-and-rolls really forces opposing big men to commit to him, which opens opportunities for Theis. He said the two have also developed good timing on a jump-pass from Walker.
“It’s fun and I’m happy, and everybody’s happy to have Kemba back,” Theis said. “It’s great for us. He’s drawing a lot of attention, putting pressure on the defense, especially when he starts the game off like he did today, hitting shots. It’s easy for us bigs. As soon as he gets the ball, we got to meet him high, set a high step-up [screen] and he can do his thing.