BOSTON — One sensational win without Joel Embiid, one back-to-earth loss with him.
After being named the NBA's MVP on Tuesday, Embiid returned from a right knee sprain Wednesday night at TD Garden.
With their cornerstone center in the lineup, the Sixers got blown out by Boston in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series. A 121-87 Celtics victory knotted the series at 1-1.
Jaylen Brown scored 25 points and Malcolm Brogdon had 23.
Embiid posted 15 points on 4-for-9 shooting and five blocks. James Harden recorded only 12 points on 2-for-14 shooting.
Game 3 will be Friday night in Philadelphia. Here are observations on the Sixers' Game 2 defeat:
Embiid far sharper on defense early
Though Embiid did not move as confidently or decisively as usual, it was still clear that his presence upgraded the Sixers’ defense early.
Boston opened playing a five-out style, often stationing Al Horford in the corner. While that approach has tended to be effective at keeping Embiid away from the rim, he was still an immediate factor in the paint. He effectively contested one Derrick White attempt inside and picked up a chase-down block in transition against Marcus Smart. Embiid added four more blocks in the first half, including another impressive chase-down on Jayson Tatum and a rejection when Brown tried to dunk over him. The bottom line is when Embiid’s on the court, the Sixers’ perimeter defense has almost always looked less leaky.
Embiid’s rust and suboptimal health were much more apparent on offense. He missed a couple of early jump shots and committed an after-timeout turnover when he looked for Tobias Harris on a duck-in and had the ball slip from his hand. Though head coach Doc Rivers said pregame the Sixers’ preference was to sub Embiid in and out as normal, the six-time All-Star ultimately headed to the bench with 5:09 left in the first quarter.
While the Sixers started 3 for 13 from the field and 1 for 13 from three-point range, their defense generally started far stronger than in Game 1’s first quarter. Boston began 4 for 13 from the floor, 1 for 7 from long distance.
Outside of Harden’s nine points, the Sixers received just 11 in the first quarter. Right after P.J. Tucker declined a corner three, drove on Robert Williams III and got blocked, Georges Niang replaced him. Niang made a nice defensive play taking a charge on Tatum, but he had a scoreless stint. Moving forward, we continue to think it might make sense to give Danuel House Jr. some rotation minutes.
Harden saw a step-back three rattle around the rim and out late in the first quarter. Though Harden couldn’t duplicate the magic from his 45-point Game 1 night, a first-quarter silver lining for the Sixers was the 33-year-old drawing six foul shots in the period. He finished the evening 8 for 10 at the foul line.
Free throws were also Embiid’s best source of offense in the first half. He made 7 of 8 foul shots and scored 13 points before intermission.
Hustle plays boost Boston
While it’s awfully difficult to lead after a half in which your team makes under 10 percent of its threes, one reason the Sixers trailed by eight points is that Boston out-hustled them on several key plays.
Marcus Smart was central. Following a scramble for possession that the Celtics won late in the first quarter, Smart nailed a crowd-pleasing three. He also made a tough fadeaway jumper with 0.4 seconds to go in the first after being blocked by Embiid. And to start the second, Smart cut along the baseline before throwing down an alley-oop reverse dunk.
A second-chance Horford three stretched the Celtics’ lead to 50-38. Boston then hit a speed bump, though. Tatum charged into Tucker for his third foul and sat with 5:33 remaining in the second quarter.
While the Sixers had a decent finish to the first half, they couldn’t fully capitalize on Tatum’s foul trouble, in part because Tyrese Maxey was soon on the bench as well. White beat the 22-year-old to an offensive rebound and then drew his third foul with 2:16 left in the second period.
At least in the first half, the Sixers somewhat mitigated those instances of inferior hustle and their outside shooting woes by doing well in transition. When Harden threw a deep, sweet pass to Paul Reed for a slam, the Sixers held a 13-2 advantage in fast-break points.
Terrible third quarter for Sixers
An Embiid fadeaway jumper over Horford was promising for the Sixers on the team’s first possession of the third quarter. So was a Tucker corner three.
However, both Embiid and the Sixers overall were poor offensively for the remainder of the third. Embiid couldn’t convert an easy fast-break lay-in, missed a pair of jumpers, and committed a turnover trying to force a pass inside. Another Harden three spun around the rim and out.
The third quarter soon spiraled out of control for the Sixers, who let the Celtics collectively catch fire from long range. By the time Grant Williams sunk his third triple early in the fourth quarter, Boston led by 30 points. Brogdon’s sixth three extended the Celtics’ advantage to 32. The Sixers seemed to grow more and more demoralized with every make, and their level dipped in all areas. At one point late in the third, Brown picked off a Maxey pass in the backcourt. Meanwhile, the Celtics cut their turnovers from 16 in Game 1 to a mere seven Wednesday night.
Maxey subbed out less than two minutes into the fourth quarter for Jaden Springer. Neither Embiid nor Harden played at all in the fourth.
In Embiid's return, he ended up going just 27 minutes. The MVP will hope for a much better night Friday in front of his home fans.