Sixers were so close to deviating from same old, tired story against Celtics


On one hand, Christmas was the same old, tired, exasperating tale for the Sixers.

They lost in Boston, 121-114 in overtime (see observations). They let the opposition take 16 more field goals. An opposing guard, Kyrie Irving, torched them for 40 points. The bench didn’t score in the first half. Ben Simmons, despite making the longest shot of his career, was well contained by Boston’s defense. The Celtics executed better down the stretch. 

On the other hand, Tuesday’s loss didn’t just feel like a continuation of this spring’s playoff defeat to Boston, and it wasn’t a carbon copy of the Sixers’ deflating loss on opening night.

“I leave feeling like we’re not that far,” head coach Brett Brown told reporters in Boston. “We always learn a lot when you’re playing somebody like the Celtics on their home court, with the team that they have. I look forward to watching us evolve; we will learn from this. We leave disappointed, but I think there’s lots for me that you’re going to point to and say, ‘that’s a hell of a job.’ We lost to a team that was very tough when it mattered most, that last two and a half minutes of overtime.”

For Brown, and for Joel Embiid, the end of regulation and the end of overtime hurt most.

In overtime, the Sixers scored the first five points before the Celtics went on a 10-1 run, ignited by two three-pointers from Irving. 

But the game almost never got to that point. The Sixers held a 108-106 lead after Wilson Chandler’s three-pointer with 36 seconds remaining. Then Irving got a fadeaway jumper from the right elbow over Jimmy Butler to bounce in softly off the front rim, and JJ Redick missed a good look from the right wing as time expired in regulation.

Brown said he had "no regrets” with the final play of regulation. He thought Redick got a shot “you’d want all day, every day,” and said he didn’t want to call a timeout and allow Boston to substitute in their best defensive lineup.

He did, however, acknowledge the Sixers’ late-game execution isn’t anywhere near playoff-ready, even if Tuesday had all the drama and intensity of a typical playoff game. 

“In that environment, all I think about is 92-92, three minutes left, Game 6, what are you going to do? If that were the case tonight, we’d be in trouble,” Brown said. “The good news is it’s December the 25th and this conversation can’t be had in late April, early May. We’ve got lots to work on. This will be a tremendous reference point for me as the coach to remind them and show them and teach them different things.”

Embiid, who led the Sixers with 36 points and 14 rebounds, blamed himself for the team’s failures down the stretch. But, as he has in the recent past, he also alluded to not being used in an ideal way.

I felt I could’ve done more. The ball didn’t find me in the fourth and in overtime. In those situations, I gotta show up and then also, I gotta be put in the right situations to be able to help the team. I feel like I wasn’t in the right situations. I felt like I could’ve done more. We lost. I put this heavily on me because I know I could’ve done more. The way I was playing, I don’t think they could guard me. They were double-teaming on the first dribbles, but I gotta find a way to adjust with that and just be myself.

Chances are, the narratives about Embiid’s usage, Brown’s coaching, Simmons’ lack of a jumper and the bench’s weakness would be a lot less prominent if Redick made a shot you expect him to hit, or if Mike Muscala didn’t shoot 1 for 9, or if Irving didn’t keep nailing incredible shots in the clutch despite excellent defense from Butler.

“I think we did all right,” Butler said. “I think if we limit our turnovers, guard a little bit better, take away the three — which is what we talked about before the game — the game could’ve been a different outcome. But, you know … we lost. Back to the drawing board.” 

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