12:21 AM ETbontemps_tim The Celtics have a giant 76ers downside

Tim BontempsESPN

PHILADELPHIA — Within the first two conferences between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers this season, the Sixers bludgeoned the Celtics into submission.

These video games, although, featured celebrity heart Joel Embiid, one of many league’s largest and heaviest objects. Boston had been helpless to cease him. However Embiid wasn’t on the court docket Thursday night time. As a substitute, he was on his technique to New York, the place he’ll have surgical procedure on his dislocated left ring finger Friday.

So, with Embiid out of the lineup, issues would go otherwise for the Celtics … proper?

Not precisely.

“I believe the large image [difference] is simply matchups-wise with the blokes that they’ve, and the dimensions and scoring capability that we have now,” Sixers ahead Tobias Harris mentioned.

After the Sixers got here away with a 109-98 victory over the Celtics, one factor is evident: Whether or not Embiid is wholesome or not, the Celtics have a Sixers downside.

The reverse was true the previous few seasons, however now the participant who triggered Philadelphia so lots of these issues — Al Horford — is carrying a Sixers uniform.

It has been an ungainly season for Horford in Philadelphia. He and Embiid have struggled to co-exist on the court docket. He has appeared uncomfortable shifting away from the issues that made him one of many NBA’s most versatile large males and a participant the Sixers have been intent on including this offseason.

However with Embiid sidelined, Horford was again to taking part in heart full time. He put up exactly the form of sport that he had so many instances the previous three years for Boston, ending with 17 factors on 7-for-11 taking pictures to go together with eight rebounds, six assists, a steal and two blocks. The 76ers outscored the Celtics by 19 factors in Horford’s 32 minutes on the ground.

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“Coming right here, I anticipated to play the 4, however I do know certainly one of my strengths as a participant is to play inside, play exterior, play the 4, play the 5, guard completely different positions on the court docket, and I used to be anticipating that,” Horford mentioned. “I knew wherever I am wanted that is likely one of the strengths that I deliver, to have the ability to do various things.”

Horford repeatedly outmuscled former understudy Daniel Theis inside, grabbing 5 offensive rebounds. His passing helped unlock a Philadelphia offense that went 11-for-27 (40.7%) from Three-point vary. By shifting round their defensive coverages to intensify Horford’s strengths, versus Embiid’s, the Sixers pressured the Celtics into 50 misses on 88 pictures, erasing an early 15-point deficit.

“I assumed they only bodily wore on us,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens mentioned.

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That was very true of Ben Simmons, who received no matter he needed. It was a far cry from the playoff collection two years in the past during which the Celtics uncovered Simmons’ lack of a bounce shot. He did not want one Thursday night time, repeatedly bullying the Celtics within the paint. He was capable of get a child hook shot every time he needed, and mentioned afterward he “positively” sought to submit up extra with Embiid out of the sport.

Anybody watching the sport could not assist however discover he was capable of do what he needed bodily regardless of who was guarding him.

“I imply, he does that on a regular basis,” Harris mentioned with a smile.

He is not incorrect. However generally, with the entire noise that surrounds Simmons — and notably that lack of a bounce shot — it’s straightforward to overlook every thing that he does do. And, on this sport, he showcased virtually all of it, together with taking part in a couple of minutes at heart when Horford was off the ground. That is the benefit Philadelphia has with having a 6-foot-10 level guard; even with out Embiid, the Sixers nonetheless are greater than the Celtics at nearly each place.

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Simmons smothered the Celtics defensively, together with poking the ball away from Kemba Walker for a steal at a key second halfway via the fourth quarter. And Sixers coach Brett Brown allowed Simmons to push the tempo in a means Philadelphia merely cannot when Embiid is round, to the good thing about all concerned.

“Simply imposing his will,” Horford mentioned of Simmons. “He is very gifted bodily and made some good strikes within the submit, pushing the tempo.

“It is powerful to protect him within the open ground. I believe his power, with that, it is contagious, and it will get us all going. And, clearly, that was the distinction.”

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Thursday additionally served as a reminder of how rapidly issues can change within the NBA. Per week in the past, the Celtics have been using excessive, profitable eight out of 9 video games and searching like they may settle into the second seed within the East. The Sixers, in the meantime, misplaced in Houston final Friday to drop their fourth straight sport. After that loss, Embiid mentioned the entire shedding was taking a toll on him.

Now the Sixers have gained two video games in a row towards playoff-bound opponents — the Thunder on Monday and the Celtics on Thursday — and Boston is within the midst of its first three-game shedding streak of the season. The Celtics even have formally misplaced the season collection to the Sixers because of Thursday’s loss, one thing that might come into play as a tiebreaker in April.

“No one desires to lose,” mentioned Celtics guard Marcus Sensible, who scored 24 factors off the bench. “And all people is attempting to determine it out. … It occurs. We have simply received to be prepared to show it round and preserve taking part in. That is the one means.”

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The Sixers are nonetheless attempting to determine issues out too. Whereas some items would possibly match higher with out Embiid on the court docket, that does not imply Philadelphia is best off with out their greatest participant.

“The few of us knew that since he wasn’t taking part in, we have been going to should be extra aggressive as a result of he’s fairly presumably the very best heart within the sport and he is an enormous piece of our offense,” mentioned Josh Richardson, who scored 14 of his game-high 29 factors within the fourth quarter to assist shut out the Celtics. “We knew that it is form of a psychological word that it’s a must to take going into it. I knew early on that I used to be going to should be aggressive to present our offense a great shot.”

With Embiid out for some time — the staff mentioned Thursday he will likely be reevaluated in a single to 2 weeks — the Sixers should proceed to create constructive tendencies throughout his absence. One in all them needs to be the improved play from Horford. One other is additional creating an id within the minutes that Embiid is off the court docket, and when Simmons is on the market with Horford.

Whether or not that occurs or not, the Sixers can be ok with how they match up with the Celtics. If there was any doubt about that earlier than Thursday night time, it is gone now.