It was highly likely the Celtics weren’t quite ready for the Philadelphia 76ers, even though it’s Game 51. It’s been that kind of season for the Celtics. They don’t know what they’re going to get from themselves on any particular night, but the chances the Celtics would play well enough to beat an elite team was remote.
They were already missing Evan Fournier, who is now in the COVID-19 protocol for at least the next few days, as the Celtics have become numbed to bad breaks and setbacks.
But their 106-96 loss to the 76ers, punctuated by a 19-2 Philadelphia second-quarter run, was so reminiscent of many of their past losses to quality teams this season.
The Celtics were a few mistakes from making this a competitive game. But the symptoms of defeat were familiar. The Celtics committed 22 turnovers, fouled too damn much — as usual — and relied too heavily on the 3-point shot.
Of the 27 field goal attempts from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, 17 were 3-pointers. The Celtics, completely intimidated by Embiid, just stopped attacking the rim. Embiid played 33 minutes and committed one foul, which occurred with 5:50 left in the game and the Celtics down 20.
So they didn’t make Embiid work on defense at all. They settled for 3-pointers or forced themselves into bad shots with indecisiveness. Defensively, the Celtics again fell for all of Embiid’s tricks. He attempted 20 free throws and single-handedly fouled out Robert Williams in 14 minutes.
The Celtics just weren’t prepared for this challenge. The 76ers are so much more advanced and confident at this point. The Celtics needed standout games from at least two of their Big Three – Brown, Tatum, and Walker – and none responded.
Brown just seemed distant Tuesday. He was not sharp on defense and committed some uncharacteristic turnovers. Tatum only reached the free throw line three times.
What’s more, Ben Simmons attempted more free throws than Tatum and Brown combined, a sign of a lack of aggressiveness and lack of physicality.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens attributed the free throw disparity (39 to 18) to the Sixers just being more physical and imposing. Philadelphia is No. 1 in the NBA in free throws attempted at 26.3 per game, so that’s always going to be an issue for the perimeter-heavy Celtics; but it’s a major problem when the 76ers shoot 13 above their season average.
“Obviously, both of our guys are learning some of that (physical) stuff but they do as much in the perimeter as they do in (the paint),” Stevens said. “That’s not a knock. That’s just who they are as players. Not everybody is going to be able to get to the free throw line the same. But it’s a problem for our team over time.”
Which begs the question, do Brown and Tatum need to learn some of those veteran tricks? Simmons has perhaps the most limited half-court offensive game for an elite player in recent history but averages more free throw attempts per game than Brown or Tatum.
“They’re just super physical for their position,” Stevens said of Embiid and Simmons. “Our guys are doing what they can and doing all the right stuff but maybe they can add a trick or two or free throw or two.”
The Celtics are being burned by their reputation of being a finesse perimeter team. When Brown, Tatum, or Walker do attack the basket, they generally don’t get the calls, even when there’s contact. So if the Celtics can’t score easy points, then that places more pressure to hit jumpers.
And the team needs Walker to be better in that category. He was 6 for 14 shooting for 14 points but those points weren’t impactful. The Celtics need Walker to carry the offensive early or match the opposing point guard with buckets, but that rarely happens. Walker generally gets off to slow starts, scores in a couple of spurts, but doesn’t give the offense a lifeline when needed.
That puts more pressure on Tatum and Brown and even Marcus Smart to score. Brown attempted 10 shots in 33 minutes and just seemed disengaged. Tatum scored 20 points, but 15 of those came in the second half.
“That’s a good question,” was Tatum’s response when asked how the Celtics score easier points. “There’s a lot of answers to that. Realizing time and score, the bonus situation. Just playing the game within the game.”
That’s the key. And that’s what the Celtics are lacking. They don’t always play smart basketball. For example, with a sliver of a chance to rally, the Celtics needed a stop midway through the fourth quarter down 14. Instead, rookie Payton Pritchard got caught on a screen and fouled Furkan Korkmaz with the 76ers in the bonus.
The Celtics give the opposing team too many easy points by over fouling, and they aren’t good at drawing fouls. So if they aren’t hitting jumpers, their chances of winning are minimal. And they ran into a team Tuesday that exploited all their weaknesses.
So the hope is the Celtics are better prepared in about six weeks when they begin the playoffs. But this team is so flawed in some areas, it’s unlikely they can improve so drastically over that span.
The first step is making the game easier for themselves.