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Celtics don’t have the size to stop big man Joel Embiid, and other observations from loss to 76ers

The Celtics' Luke Kornet tried to stop 76ers center Joel Embiid, who scored 35 points.
The Celtics' Luke Kornet tried to stop 76ers center Joel Embiid, who scored 35 points.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Just over 2,000 fans are allowed into TD Garden now, so it is easier for one to be heard when the arena lacks its usual din. When the Celtics walked off the floor following their 106-96 loss to the 76ers Tuesday, one fan bellowed from his seat in the lower level.

“Show some heart out there!”

The Celtics generated a bit of hope and optimism by winning a pair of games heading into this showdown. But the truth was they defeated an awful Rockets team and then beat the Hornets, who were missing three of their top players. The 76ers came to TD Garden healthy and hungry, and they made it seem as if the Celtics’ recent uptick may have been a mirage against poor competition.

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On offense, Boston turned the ball over 22 times. On defense, its only way to stop Joel Embiid was by fouling him, and free throws exist, so that was not an effective approach. The All-Star big man had 35 points and took 20 foul shots. Jayson Tatum had 20 points to lead Boston, which trailed by double digits for the entire second half.

Observations from the game:

▪ The Celtics could have used Tristan Thompson’s size in this game, even though there are no Embiid stoppers, especially not this season. Robert Williams got the call at the start and went to the bench after picking up his second foul less than five minutes later.

Coach Brad Stevens took a risk by reinserting him with a minute left, ostensibly because Embiid had been replaced by Dwight Howard, who is not an offensive threat. But just seconds later Williams bit on a Furkan Korkmaz pump-fake and fouled him. He sat for the rest of the half.

“My biggest concern with Rob was him staying on the court,” Stevens said. “He’s got to get better with his hands as far as keeping his hands straight up, and those types of things. But you see Embiid’s got all the tricks, and he takes advantage of every little bump. He did that to everybody on our team, not just Rob, but, if I had to guess, going into this game, Rob was probably going to foul a few times in the first couple of minutes.”

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Williams collected his fourth foul biting on an Embiid fake with 9:21 left in the third quarter and went back to the bench. He was on the floor to start the fourth quarter but committed two more fouls in the first 2:31, fouling out after a total of just 14 minutes.

▪ With Williams in foul trouble and options limited, Stevens inserted the 7-foot-5-inch center Tacko Fall late in the second quarter. Embiid, surprisingly, did not really try to attack him. He drew one foul on a jumper, and Fall even scored a basket inside while Embiid was defending him.

Stevens was encouraged enough by that stint that he called on Fall first when Williams’s foul trouble worsened in the third quarter. Once again, Embiid mostly declined to go for post-ups, but he had little trouble firing up open jumpers with Fall pulled away from the hoop.

“Tacko did a really good job, especially somebody in his situation where you just never know exactly when you’re going to play,” Tatum said. “But you’ve always got to be ready. And I think, for him, he did a really good job in the minutes that he played.”

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Robert Williams III fouls out of the game as he connects with Philadelphia's Dwight Howard during fourth-quarter action Tuesday night at the TD Garden.
Robert Williams III fouls out of the game as he connects with Philadelphia's Dwight Howard during fourth-quarter action Tuesday night at the TD Garden.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

▪ Stevens was pleased with the ball movement in the two wins that preceded this game, but stagnancy returned Tuesday, when the Celtics registered just 19 assists. Williams’s foul trouble caused some issues, because Fall is just not comfortable as a passer. And Stevens said the Celtics made the mistake of hunting too many pick-and-rolls involving Embiid.

“We need to do a better job of moving, cutting, getting better baskets,” he said. “You can’t beat these guys in isolation. And they are very good pick-and-roll defenders because they are so long. They chase you off the screen.”

▪ The Celtics’ offense was discombobulated in the first half. Passes were fired out of bounds, balls were dribbled off feet, and it all stopped Boston from establishing any kind of rhythm.

“Just some careless mistakes, to be honest,” Kemba Walker said. “I can’t really explain it. At the end of the day, you’ve got to find a way to get your passes through. I think a lot of times we jumped, got caught in the air, just kind of misread some things.”

Boston entered the night averaging 13.7 turnovers per game and committed 14 in the opening half. The start of the third quarter wasn’t much better, with a pair of passes thrown away in the opening minutes.

“I thought we were loose with the ball on some of them, and on some of them I thought they were great rotations by them,” Stevens said. “So I think if we go back through, you’ll be able to discern which ones I’m talking about, that we just, we were loose with passes. We took too much of a gamble, too much of a risk, and it backfired.”

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Brad Stevens directs his players during second-quarter action Tuesday night at TD Garden.
Brad Stevens directs his players during second-quarter action Tuesday night at TD Garden.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

▪ With the game tied at 37, the 76ers drilled three 3-pointers during the 15-0 run that helped them to a 59-46 halftime edge. The last play of that flurry was the most embarrassing. After a Celtics timeout, the 76ers made a late decision to apply some pressure in the backcourt. Typically, teams just do this until the ball is inbounded and then retreat. But the ball went right to Tobias Harris, who converted an easy layup.

▪ Jaylen Brown just did not seem engaged. He took a season-low 10 shots and just two free throws. On the defensive end the 76ers hunted him in the post, with Harris using his size advantage to create good looks inside. On one play in the second half, Seth Curry caught the ball for an open 3-pointer and Brown hardly even moved toward the 42.2 percent 3-point shooter. Boston was outscored by 22 points during Brown’s 32 minutes, 56 seconds on the floor. His body language appeared off.

▪ Semi Ojeleye returned after missing two weeks with a side strain, but Evan Fournier was ruled out because of COVID-19 health and safety protocols.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.