The group of players the Celtics put on the court Wednesday night in Philadelphia won’t be their final product when they and the 76ers could meet down the road in the playoffs. Philadelphia was at full strength and Boston wasn’t. Yet there are plenty of pointers the Celtics can take away from another frustrating loss at Wells Fargo Center.
The Celtics played well enough to win for the first 3½ quarters, but were guilty of the same errors they committed many times last season. They couldn’t defend without fouling, and it resulted in an absurd free throw advantage for Philadelphia in its 117-109 win.
The 76ers attempted 45 free throws, including 17 in the fourth quarter. The Celtics did not attempt a free throw in final period, and were outscored, 31-17. But it’s not about the officiating. The Celtics have to play smarter defense.
In one sequence, Celtics center Daniel Theis went for a Tobias Harris pump-fake , got caught in the air and fouled Harris, who was passing the ball with 2.5 seconds left on the shot clock. The Celtics were close to a defensive stop down 4 points with 50 seconds left, and instead Harris got two free throws.
The problem is the Celtics commit too many silly fouls early in quarters, and that puts the opposing team in the bonus far too quickly. In the second period, the Celtics held Philadelphia to 29.4 percent shooting, but put the 76ers on the free throw line 17 times. It was a conga line late in the period.
Philadelphia attempted 10 free throws in the final 3:42 of the second period. In a quarter in which Boston scored 36 points (led by 11 points apiece from Kemba Walker and Theis), Philadelphia stayed close because of Boston’s bad fouls.
In the fourth quarter, the Celtics put the 76ers in the bonus for the final 5:03. And Joel Embiid attempted six free throws over the next 1:35.
Philadelphia won this game at the free throw line. The 76ers scored easy points. Of Embiid’s game-high 42 points, 17 were scored on free throws.
“[Embiid] shot alone himself 21 free throws?” guard Marcus Smart asked after the game. “Our team shot 20. Can’t beat that. They shot 36 for 45. We shot 13 for 20. Hard to win that way. It’s tough, especially when we’ve got our hands up a lot of the times and he flails and gets the call and down on the other end we’ve got our guys attacking the rim, getting a lot of contact and we’re not getting the whistle. It’s tough to play like that.
“If the roles were reversed, I’d do it every time. I’d be on [with big games], too. Every time I threw my arms up on every time I got touched, I’m going to the free throw line. It’s kind of hard not to get into a rhythm that way when you shoot 21 free throws alone and they allow you to hack on the other end, it’s tough.”
The Celtics have beaten the 76ers plenty of times with Embiid but not when he’s this dominant. The problem is they lack the beefy center to push Embiid out of his favorite position, and he’s crafty enough to draw slap fouls and strong enough to score despite those fouls. It’s an issue the Celtics are going to have to deal with.
Tristan Thompson was acquired to provide resistance in these situations, but he committed five fouls in 21 minutes and did little to contain Embiid. Second-year forward Grant Williams also collected five fouls in 16 minutes. The duo combined for 6 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 fouls.
“We’ve got to do our best to play without fouling,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s going to score some but 42 is too much. It’s going to be hard to win a game when the best player on the other team gets 42 points. You have to go back to how can we be better. He had a huge impact on the game. He was terrific.”
The Celtics may be at full strength for Friday’s rematch if Jayson Tatum is available. But Wednesday was a reminder of the Celtics’ deficiency in the middle against dominant centers. If Thompson isn’t going to score much, he has to have a bigger defensive impact.
And while Theis scored 23 points (going 10 for 11 from the field), he again lived in foul trouble, and his three fourth-quarter fouls led to five Philadelphia free throws. The Celtics are in the bottom 10 in the NBA in opponent’s free throw attempts, which forces them to have to outscore teams instead of stopping teams.
While they have two of the league’s more prolific scorers in Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics would rather rely on defense to win down the stretch. They lost Wednesday’s game because they didn’t give themselves a chance defensively. They fouled too often. They committed bad fouls while in the bonus.
It was a warning the Celtics need to be more aware of in game situations. They played well enough to win but were outscored, 17-6, in the final 6:53 with 10 of Philadelphia’s points coming on free throws.
Like Smart said, it’s hard to win that way.