Faced with Philadelphia big man Joel Embiid, the Celtics still don’t have an answer.
Though they clearly missed the scoring of Evan Fournier, back in the health and safety protocol, there was little evidence in a 106-96 loss to the Sixers that the Celtics have closed the gap on this Eastern Conference heavyweight.
Embiid again had it his way with the C’s. Rob Williams picked up three fouls in his first five minutes, added No. 4 in his eighth minute after barely stepping back on the hardwood in the third quarter, and what the Celtics had left was a bigs rotation of Tacko Fall and Luke Kornet.
The Celtics finished with 20 turnovers — Marcus Smart had trouble with the ball all night as evidenced by his game-high six throwaways — and gradually lost hold against one of the finest defensive squads in the NBA.
Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Williams each had another three, with the starting lineup alone accounting for 16 turnovers.
“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.” Brad Stevens said of the miscues. “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. You have to be sure with the ball against them because otherwise they get running in transition. And in the half court they’re hard enough to stop, but if you let them have run-outs, it’s impossible.”
Embiid, who came in averaging 40 points in two games against the Celtics, dropped his number to 38.3. This time he scored 35 points, including the usual bushel of free throws (16-for-20), and considering the superb defensive job the Sixers had just turned in, it was more than enough.
His dominance at the line continues against the Celtics, and this won’t be the last time Williams gets a lesson in post-manship from probably the greatest, most physical practitioner in the NBA.
“Yeah Rob’s got a lot of work on but, he’s a guy that — he’ll get better,” said Stevens. “I mean, I knew coming into the game that Rob, my biggest concern with Rob was him staying on the court. 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 gonna foul a few times in the first couple of minutes, which is just part of it. As much as we talk about it prior to the game, and he knows it, it’s still different when you’re out there guarding.”
Tatum, who had his own problems, shooting 7-for-17 under pressure mostly from Ben Simmons all night, pointed to the beauty of the schedule at times like this. The Celtics move on to the Knicks, a team in direct competition for a playoff seed, Wednesday night.
“We have to move on — onto the next one. Another game tomorrow, nothing we can change about this one against a good team,” he said. “They played well, so let’s just go to tomorrow.”
Free throws aren’t free: Embiid and Simmons attempted a combined 28 free throws alone. Tatum and Brown attempted five, combined. On a larger scale the Celtics attempted 18 to Philly’s 39. Hoping to someday go to the line as much as the Sixers isn’t the right way to think, according to Stevens.
“Some of it is just how physical those two guys are,” Stevens said of Embiid and Simmons. “I mean, they are just super physical for their position — like, the most physical. I think our guys are doing what they can, they’re doing all the right stuff. Maybe they can add a trick or two and add a free throw or two, but I do think it’s more about the physicality of the drives. Especially, I don’t think comparing them and Embiid, they are just different. But Simmons is the one that has just such physicality on his drives.”
Extra Tacko Time: Fall, pressed into service, had a steal in nine minutes and also dunked over Embiid off a lob for his only basket of the game. At least the big guy is learning.
“Tacko did a really good job,” said Tatum. “Especially somebody in his situation where you just never know, never know exactly when you’re going to play, but you always gotta be ready. And I think, for him, he did a really good job in the minutes that he played. So I was happy to see that. Hopefully he can build on that.”