Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers have dropped Game 1 of their Eastern Conference playoff series against the Boston Celtics.
Led by impressive performances Terry Rozier, Al Horford and Aron Baynes, the Celtics thoroughly outplayed the Sixers and comfortably secured victory. This marks only the second time in 22 games that Simmons and his young Philadelphia team have tasted defeat.
Here are three takeaways from Game 1 in Boston.
1. Brad Stevens versus Ben Simmons
Simmons actually looked like a rookie in Game 1. Sure, his stat line is fine – 18 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists in 42 minutes – but this was not one of his better games. What ailed Simmons was systematic to the entire Sixers team. There was a general malaise and indecisiveness to their game. A six-day break can be used to somewhat explain this, but it’s not like Philadelphia got jumped and were forced to play catchup. They were leading 29-27 early in the second quarter and looked to have survived an impressive start from the Celtics.
Boston was simply too smart and too good for Simmons and the Sixers.
“I think they came ready to play and we were very rusty,” Simmons said postgame. “We just got smacked, multiple times, and we didn’t react.”
Why Simmons was restricted is the fascinating part. To this end, the Boston defensive scheme was excellent. The Celtics made it their mission to keep Simmons out of transition as much as possible. Even when Simmons received the basketball in the backcourt and attempted to push the tempo, Boston was always ready to slow him down.
In many ways, this was a flashback to Simmons’ Summer League campaign in 2016. The Celtics built a wall at every chance, and prioritised two things: keeping Simmons out of the paint and locking down the outside shooters that he loves to feed. In the previous series against Miami, plays like this often led to positive early offence for the Sixers. Boston was ready.
Every Boston defender had eyes for Simmons in transition, making it their mission to slow him down. This was a highlight of Aron Baynes’ performance. Before he glued himself to Joel Embiid in the half court, he routinely sprinted back on defence and helped slow his fellow countryman down.
Simmons finished the game with 7 turnovers. Many of those were a combination of sloppy mistakes and a general lack of assertiveness. It is likely Simmons and the Sixers coaching staff will clean things up heading into Game 2, but one thing is clear after the opening game of this series: Simmons will not have the space afforded to him for most of his rookie season.
Boston will assuredly continue locking down his supporting cast with hopes of turning Simmons into more of a scorer. This remains the (relative) weakness in his game, as many of his questionable offensive decisions came when he was forced to look for his own shot.
This is another case of Baynes helping away from Embiid and forcing the rookie into an uncomfortable decision. Simmons has gotten much better at keep his dribble live and avoiding negative plays like this, where he leaves his feet. He should have just shot the basketball here, and he knows it. But that’s the power of this defensive scheme from Stevens. It’s making inexperienced players think in the crucible of playoff basketball.
“We didn’t executive offensively like we wanted to every time down the floor,” Simmons said. “That’s on us.
“It’s just frustrating because we knew what we needed to do, but we weren’t doing any of it."
2. Aron Baynes versus Joel Embiid
Heading into the series, Baynes looked like the Celtics' best option of slowing down Joel Embiid. Stevens put this matchup into motion during Game 1, with Baynes playing 29 minutes, all of which came against the 76ers All-Star.
On first glance, you will look at the stat sheet and think that Embiid cooked the big Australian. Embiid finished with 31 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists. He was the best Sixer in Game 1 and objectively won his personal battle with Baynes. But that doesn’t mean Baynes didn’t play his role; on the contrary, he did his job very well.
Embiid is a monster. He is too big and strong for almost every defender in the NBA. By virtue of his unique mix of size and skill, he can get his little hook shot or mid-range jumper anytime. Asking Baynes to stop Embiid entirely is a tall order, but he can slow the Sixers big man down and provide a consistent physical presence.
Baynes showed his resourceful defence in Game 1. Embiid got his, to a certain extent, but Baynes was almost always in the correct defensive position and doing all he could. More importantly, he was able to defend Embiid by himself, in single coverage. The Celtics can almost certainly survive Embiid scoring 30 points, if they restrict the arsenal of shooters deployed around him.
3. Three-point shooting
The 76ers were feast or famine from the three-point line against Miami. In Game 1 against Boston, they were starving.
Philadelphia shot 5-26 from three, while their undermanned opponents exploded on 17-36 shots. Terry Rozier led the way with a fluorescent 7-9 shooting display for Boston.
Even Baynes got in on the fun, as he converted two of his three long-range attempts. In contrast, the 76ers group of Dario Saric, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli shot 3-20.
Baynes almost matching the output this Sixers bunch, each of whom are among the best shooters in basketball, is an incredible feat. This will undoubtedly normalise, as the series goes along. I very much doubt Boston will come close to winning the three-point line by 36 points again. But with Simmons and Embiid facing the most challenging moments of their brief careers, the Sixers will need their outside shooters to improve in order to win the series.
Game 2 is back in Boston on Friday morning 1030 AEST.