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Joel Embiid had one of his worst performances in recent memory, with the Sixers center sputtering through a 117-107 loss to the Boston Celtics.
Here’s what I saw.
— The Sixers were badly in need of a spark off of the bench, coming into this game with tired legs after a pair of track meets against the Pacers. Enter Jaden Springer, the young guard who has been squeezed out of the rotation by vets to open the season.
It took Springer exactly two possessions to make his case for more minutes. Left alone in the corner on his first offensive set, the ball came Springer’s way for a catch-and-shoot look that he canned. And moments later, Springer jumped a passing lane to steal a pass intended for Derrick White, walking in for another two points before the Celtics realized what had hit them.
With Philadelphia looking slow and uninspired in the opening quarter, Springer came through like a bolt of lightning. Even when he doesn’t have it going on offense, you can bet that he’s going to try to chase down every loose ball and every rebound opportunity. It seems silly to say, but Springer saving a loose ball by the Celtics’ bench in the second quarter felt like a game-changing play. Philadelphia only got a pair of Maxey free throws out of the ensuing fast break, but the crowd was energized by the play of Springer (and to be fair, backup big Paul Reed) in a way that seemed to lift up the group.
To Nick Nurse’s credit, he also rolled with Springer for the rest of the quarter once it was clear he had it going, which should hopefully give him a jolt of confidence moving forward. And those minutes came at the expense of…
— …Robert Covington! The former, former Sixer had his best half since re-joining the team in spite of how dysfunctional they looked early.
While the product of The Process has not turned himself into an apex ballhandler or anything close, he has improved just enough to be a semi-reliable threat attacking closeouts. That is a big difference maker for Covington, who was once pulled from the starting lineup against this Celtics team in the playoffs because they dared him to beat them doing anything other than shooting threes. On Wednesday night, Covington ended up with a smaller player guarding him for most of the night, and he was able to lean on his size advantage to get past his man for buckets at the rim.
He didn’t even have to create for a few of those buckets, mind you. Covington came flying in for multiple putback jams in the first quarter alone, crashing the glass to great effect.
(Also, it wouldn’t be a Covington game without a few deflections from No. 33. He gets his hands on everything, somehow.)
— De’Anthony Melton finally seems to have arrived this season. Welcome back, my dude.
Having another player on the floor with pull-up ability from three is a big deal for this group, and that was the real shame of Melton’s tough start to the year on catch-and-shoot looks. With his confidence waning, we didn’t see Melton even think about taking pull-up threes in the opening five or six games, which is a problem when you’re one of about 1.5 players on the roster who can dribble.
Now if he could just play well when their stars play well…
— Paul Reed was chaos personified in this game, and I mean that in the best way possible. He looked as though he’d been shot out of a cannon, providing a stark contrast to the lethargic effort of Joel Embiid.
Along with Springer, Reed came up with a number of big hustle plays in each half, shedding box outs for second-chance looks at the rim. Aside from a missed free throw in the second half and a missed layup in traffic early on, he was excellent from wire to wire.
(And how about Reed finally making a three?! Don’t get any ideas, buddy, but good on you.)
— If this was the best Joel Embiid had to offer on the second half of a back-to-back, I’d prefer that he sit down and give someone else a chance to make an impact. Whether it’s because he’s hurting or tired, half-engaged Embiid is not useful to anybody on the floor, and he was not mentally prepared to open this game against a hated rival.
Al Horford ate his lunch for the better part of the first 24 minutes. He ripped him for a turnover on Embiid’s first deep touch of the game, nailed a jumper over Embiid’s outstretched arm 90 seconds later, and (as usual) made Embiid work far too hard for his looks at the hoop in the first half. Horford certainly didn’t do it all on his own — Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, and others constantly shaded toward Embiid with Horford as the primary defender. But give the veteran big his due for beating Embiid to spots and refusing to budge when the bigger man tried to back him down in the post.
(To that point — it’s a failure in execution and gameplan, as it was in years past, to try to turn this into a weight room contest between Embiid and Horford. Horford doesn’t fall for any/all of Embiid’s jukes and feints, and his weaknesses at this stage are all about covering guys in space. When the Sixers have made Horford chase guys around, that’s when they’ve been able to hurt him. But he got extremely comfortable in this game, happy to battle his longtime foe one-on-one.)
For all of Embiid’s issues on offense, and there were plenty, I would argue his bigger crimes were on the other end of the floor. While his perimeter teammates didn’t do the best job containing the Celtics on the perimeter, Embiid did a poor job of balancing his responsibilities as a help defender while sticking with Horford. And Horford punished him in a big way in the third quarter, making several consecutive threes with nothing but space in front of him as he let the shot go.
I’d be hard-pressed to name a thing Embiid did well in this game for four quarters. He’s talented enough that there were flashes, obviously, but this was as bad as it gets from him. And though there have been plenty of games throughout his career where the rest of the team let him down, this one goes down in the “his fault” section of Embiid’s yearbook. Horrific outing.
(There was a decent case to simply leave him on the bench in the fourth quarter with the rest of the group cooking and flying around the floor, though the chances of that happening were less than zero. It’s easy for us to say as people watching and observing, but I don’t blame Nick Nurse for sending his star player back out there, in case that needs to be said.)
— I didn’t think this was a particularly inspiring Maxey performance, though I grade it on a curve since he was up against the best defensive backcourt in the league by far. But if he’s going to be the perimeter leader of this team, the lack of organization and cohesion at the end of games falls on his shoulders to some extent.
— My kingdom for a backup point guard. Please, Daryl Morey, don’t subject me to these Maxey-less groups who can’t dribble longer than is necessary.
Since he first took the floor in 2016-17, Joel Embiid has been able to prop up almost any backup group by himself. He was posting positive numbers while the team was being run by Sergio Rodriguez, for example. But asking him to lead lineups with (at max) half of a ballhandler has proven to be too much for Embiid to handle in the early portion of this season. It is also bringing out Embiid’s worst tendencies on offense, with repeated turnovers coming out of his attempts to play jumbo point guard.
This is a problem they may have to rectify sooner rather than later because the Maxey-less minutes shouldn’t be so bad that you routinely lose minutes with Embiid on the floor. It doesn’t need to be a star-level guy, just a garden-variety backup guard who can dribble. Get it done already.
— I understand that the Sixers are down multiple rotation wings at this point, but there is simply no reason for Marcus Morris to be on the floor right now. See what you have in Jaden Springer. Play double-big lineups with Paul Reed, which we thought we’d get a look at coming into the season. There are a bunch of combinations you could go to, and Nick Nurse is supposed to be inventive and flexible searching for lineups that work.
It’s nothing against Morris personally, and he would have been an excellent fit next to Embiid as recently as a couple of seasons ago. But between his inability to hit shots and his defensive miscues, there’s just no place for him in the rotation.