“The referees f-ing suck.”
These were the parting words from Joel Embiid on Tuesday night after his new-look Philadelphia 76ers went to Boston and lost 112-109.
Embiid had several complaints, some justified, about the calls that went against him and his side in the game in Boston. But the refs in this game can’t explain how Embiid has continued to struggle against Boston, especially with their starting center, Al Horford.
Until Embiid can figure out how to play against Horford, it’s going to be really tough for the 76ers to get past Boston.
Before we get to the matchup between the two bigs, let’s not discount that the 76ers are learning how to play with a lineup that was revamped after the trade deadline, with the addition of Tobias Harris adding a playmaking scorer, but also someone to incorporate into the lineup, which will always take time.
Sixers coach Brett Brown basically chalked up the game to that, and didn’t reveal any concerns about the future of the team.
“We’ve got a whole new team,” he said after the game. “We’ve been with each other for a minute. I don’t even think about that at all. … I’m excited to play these guys.”
But the Sixers do have to be concerned with their recent run of form with the Celtics. Boston is now 10-2 in their last 12 meetings with the Sixers.
And Embiid’s struggles against Horford have been a big part in that.
The battle of Horford and Embiid
Al Horford’s stat line was a gem on Tuesday night, with the big finishing with 23 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. But it was his efforts against Embiid on the defensive end that stood out.
And this is nothing new.
In the eight games these two teams have played since the start of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Embiid has shot just 25-for-70 (36 percent) against Horford, including 5-for-16 (31 percent) Tuesday, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Against all other defenders, Embiid has gone 48-for-52 (52 percent), including 4-for-6 Tuesday.
Embiid said it wasn’t a big deal on Tuesday night, pointing to the referees and also to the fact that he was “sleep walking” through the first three quarters, putting the blame on himself for his poor performance.
But Horford has been uniquely suited to stopping Embiid for quite some time now. He has the strength, discipline and length to stay with Embiid, not something true of a lot of bigs in this league, and the Celtics’ constant switching on defense has sometimes caught Embiid off guard.
A sure sign Horford’s defense is working: Embiid tends to take a lot of 3s against the Celtics – he attempted eight (!) on Tuesday night, only making two of them. Frustrated by the lack of space down low and Horford’s ability to bump with him, Embiid stepped back, which was what the Celtics wanted.
A needed win for the Celtics
The win serves as a righting of the ship for the Celtics, who were reeling off of several bad performances and a trade deadline which saw a marquee to-be free agent swear off the organization and their star point guard, Kyrie Irving, walk back his commitment to staying in Boston.
The game was meant to be the Sixers coming to town and showing Boston who the new boss in the East is. Instead it ended with another disappointing loss for the young team to a Boston side they just can’t seem to figure out.
Aside from Horford’s continued dominance, perhaps most encouraging for the Celtics was Gordon Hayward – who has struggled to look like himself this season after coming back from a gruesome leg injury – finished with a team-leading 26 points on 8-11 shooting.
If Hayward can provide that contribution off the bench, and this Celtics team can figure out how to all coexist, this team can still be just as scary as anyone in the Eastern Conference.
For now, the Sixers will have to take another L from Boston, and go on and try to get better. Something tells me these two teams will meet in the playoffs, and Embiid will have to step up if they’re going to hang with them.