Celtics vs. 76ers takeaways: Joel Embiid continues to build early MVP case with dominant 42-point performance

PHILADELPHIA — Two Eastern Conference contenders, and noted rivals, went head-to-head when the Philadelphia 76ers hosted the Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. The meeting was the first between the two teams on the season and it was a rematch of the first round playoff series from last season, when the Celtics swept the Sixers in four games. Both teams were slightly shorthanded for the matchup, as the Celtics were without All-Star forward Jayson Tatum, and the Sixers were down sharpshooter Seth Curry

Nonetheless, the game was still extremely exciting, as neither squad wanted to lose ground in the competitive playoff picture in the East. The contest went down to the wire, but ultimately the Sixers were able to pull out a 117-109 win, thanks largely to Joel Embiid, who continues to look like a legitimate MVP candidate. In 33 minutes of action, Embiid finished with 42 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals. The big man got some help too, as Tobias Harris tallied 22 points and five assists for Philadelphia, and Shake Milton dropped 16 points off of the bench. 

Jaylen Brown led the way for the Celtics with 26 points, and Marcus Smart added 25 of his own. While the game was a good one, neither team has time to dwell on the outcome, as they will both be back playing against each other again on Friday night. With that said, here’s a look at three key takeaways from Philadelphia’s victory over Boston. 

Boston had no answer for Embiid

The Celtics are stacked on the perimeter. Between Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Tatum (when he’s available), Boston has a plethora of productive perimeter players. However, they’re a little light on the inside, and they certainly don’t have anyone on their roster capable of slowing Joel Embiid — which was obvious on Wednesday night.

Embiid used to struggle against the Celtics, as players like Al Horford and Aaron Baynes would really make him work on the offensive end. However, Boston’s current crop of bigs – Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis – wasn’t able to replicate that success. Embiid got virtually whatever he wanted on the offensive end, as he physically overpowered Boston bigs time and again. Embiid finished the game with an incredibly efficient 42 points on 19 shot attempts, and he practically lived at the foul line. He converted 17 of his 21 free throw attempts, and ultimately his ability to draw contact and then finish at the line was the difference in the game. The game was Embiid’s second 40-plus point game of the current campaign. Washington’s Bradley Beal is the only other player in the league with multiple 40-plus point performances this season. 

The Sixers are 10-2 when Embiid plays this season, and with performances like the one he turned in on Wednesday night, it’s easy to see why. He’s top 10 league-wide in both points and rebounds per game, and he has been downright dominant defensively. Philadelphia’s advantage over most teams is that Embiid creates a mismatch that works in their favor, and that was certainly the case against the Celtics. 

Kemba Walker didn’t look too rusty 

The game against the Sixers was just Kemba Walker’s second game back in action after missing the first 11 games of the season due to a knee injury. Despite the extended stint on the sideline, Walker certainly didn’t show noticeable signs of rust.  After scoring just 9 points on 3-for-13 shooting from the floor in 19 minutes in his first game back against the Knicks on Sunday, Walker looked much more comfortable on Wednesday night. He came out hot, and dropped 17 points (and five 3-pointers) in the first half. During that first half, Walker looked a lot like his old self, as he was knocking down shots and putting constant pressure on Philadelphia’s defense. Walker’s playing time was limited in the second half as the Celtics are still easing him back into action, and he finished the game with 19 points and a team high six assists in 22 minutes. It didn’t lead to a win on Wednesday, but the Celtics are surely happy to have Walker back in the rotation, as he’ll presumably only improve as he continues to get his conditioning back. 

Lack of offensive output from Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons is in a bit of a slump on the offensive end. Against the Celtics, Simmons finished with just 11 points on five field goal attempts, and unfortunately low point and attempt totals has been a bit of a trend for Simmons as of late. In fact, this was the fourth straight game that Simmons finished with less than 10 attempts from the floor. His assist numbers are still high (he’s fifth in the NBA with eight assists per game), but on the season Simmons is averaging career lows in both points and field goal attempts per game. He just doesn’t seem to be looking for his own shot much at all. Doc Rivers insists that he doesn’t care about Simmons’ dip in offensive output, but the Sixers are at their best when Simmons is aggressive and in attack mode — something he hasn’t been recently. 

There were several times throughout the game where Simmons had a smaller guard like Kemba Walker or Jeff Teague on him in the post, and he didn’t exploit the mismatch. Based on his sheer size, speed, and athleticism, Simmons should be able to score 20 or so points a game easily, and that’s without even shooting from the perimeter. Players go through down stretches, and Simmons is entitled to his own. Given the fact that he was recently mentioned in trade rumors, perhaps he’s in his own head a bit. Or maybe there’s still some lingering soreness in his left knee. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Simmons hasn’t been as aggressive in terms of looking for his own shot as he has in the past, and that’s something that Doc Rivers will have to address as the season goes on.