Nothing feels like a playoff game in the early stages of an NBA season played during a pandemic, so it wouldn’t be accurate to call the Sixers’ win over the Celtics on Friday night at all similar to the postseason.
It was nevertheless a high-intensity, physical victory for the Sixers over an Eastern Conference foe, 122-110. Joel Embiid led the Sixers again with 38 points on 11-for-15 shooting and 11 rebounds.
After sweeping this mini-series against Boston, the Sixers are now 11-5 and first in the conference. They’ll play the Pistons on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Here are observations on their win Friday:
Embiid’s foul trouble, frustration and domination
Embiid opened the game in prime form, scoring five of the Sixers’ first seven points. He split a Boston double team with a nimble step-through layup, hit a pull-up jumper and converted one of two free throws after earning a trip to the line with a pump fake that fooled Tristan Thompson.
Boston drew a couple of early fouls on Embiid, though, the second of which came after he ventured up to defend a pick-and-roll with Kemba Walker and couldn’t corral the All-Star guard. Head coach Doc Rivers took no chances with Embiid’s foul trouble, calling on Dwight Howard to replace him with 5:34 left in the first period.
Unsurprisingly, the Sixers lost their early lead when Embiid sat and didn’t have much apparent purpose or energy on offense outside of Shake Milton seeking opportunities to create shots. Howard was well below his best, committing two first-quarter turnovers and missing a tip-in chance off of a Matisse Thybulle miss.
Turnovers weren’t exclusively a Howard issue as the Sixers gave it away 12 times in the first half, including on five offensive fouls. Embiid’s third foul with 1:24 to go in the second quarter was one of them, and he wasn’t pleased, smacking away an offer of water.
His frustration continued early in the third period as he felt the referees missed multiple foul calls on Daniel Theis. Rivers and the Sixers’ bench vehemently agreed with Embiid, appearing incredulous that their star wasn’t hearing whistles. Perhaps the officials were aware of the tension between Embiid and Marcus Smart about “flailing” and aiming not to reward any potential exaggerations of contact.
“I feel like I could’ve gone to the free throw line another 10 times,” Embiid said. “I knew coming into the game, after they complained, I knew the officiating was going to be a little tight for us and, I guess, better for them. Before the game I told myself and I told my teammates, ‘They’re not going to give us anything but I’m going to make them call it.’ I was aggressive, which caused a lot of turnovers. I had too many for tonight. But I had to be aggressive just to make sure I scored or got to the free throw line.”
Howard was overmatched on several occasions in pick-and-roll defense, struggling to guard beyond the three-point line as the Sixers asked their big men to take a more aggressive approach. There’s a tricky middle ground with that mode of pick-and-roll coverage between deterring ball handlers and not falling victim to their superior…