BOSTON — The 24 hours leading up to Game 2 of this Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Boston Celtics went quite well for Philadelphia 76ers superstar Joel Embiid. On Tuesday night, he celebrated being named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. And after he had no setbacks during the day on Wednesday, he returned to Philadelphia’s starting lineup from a nearly two-week absence with a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee.
But the roughly two hours he and his 76ers teammates spent playing Game 2? Not so much.
While Embiid looked fine physically moving around on that right knee, finishing with 15 points and five blocks in 27 minutes, that was about the only silver lining in a 121-87 demolition by the Celitcs. The 76ers were so thoroughly beaten that their starters didn’t play the entire fourth quarter.
“I just thought tonight they made a lot of shots,” Embiid said of the Celtics. “They beat us to every loose ball, and they played with more desperation than us. We didn’t execute what we wanted to, and we’ve got to be better.
“We knew they were going to try to respond after us winning that first game, and we just wasn’t ready enough. But we’ll fix it.”
After Embiid made it through his workouts both Tuesday and Wednesday without incident, he was back in his customary place in Philadelphia’s starting lineup to begin Game 2. But after the 76ers got a spectacular 45-point performance from James Harden in Game 1, powering them to a stunning win with the MVP watching in street clothes, the Celtics became the 15th consecutive team to win Game 2 of a series after losing Game 1 at home.
And the C’s did so by getting back to their roots, taking 51 3-point attempts and making 20 of them — after Philadelphia limited Boston to just 26 attempts, its lowest total in any game this season, in Game 1.
“Some of that is under their control,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said of Boston’s 3-point barrage. “If they want to shoot 3s, they’re gonna shoot more 3s.
“I thought what was under our control was dribble penetration. They lived in the paint, which generated 3s.”
Rivers said, though, that he thought his offense was the biggest problem on the night. Philadelphia couldn’t hit a shot. The 76ers finished the game under 40% overall and a dismal 6-for-28 from 3-point range — including going 6-for-21 from the floor in the third quarter as Boston broke open what had been a competitive game at halftime.
Harden, after his brilliant Game 1, went 2-for-14 from the field and missed all six of his 3-point attempts, a microcosm of Philadelphia’s overall performance.
“No,” Harden said, when asked whether Boston did anything differently in Game 2 to slow him down. “Our spacing was wrong, and this is a make-or-miss league. We have to do a better job of knowing where we are on the floor and just allowing each other to have space and generate easier shots.”
Embiid, meanwhile, went 4-for-9 from the field, including missing both of his 3-point attempts, but he shot 7-for-8 from the foul line and generally looked spry moving around the court. After Boston had one unimpeded foray to the rim after another in Game 1, Embiid had all five of his blocks in his first 13 minutes on the court in Game 2, including rejecting a Jaylen Brown dunk attempt.
Embiid also looked good snaking through the lane on a pick-and-roll from Harden for a layup and after going around Al Horford for a dunk.
Other than one moment in the second quarter when he grabbed at the brace on his leg and flexed, he didn’t openly seem to be bothered by the knee.
“[Tuesday] was the first time I did some really going up and down in two weeks,” Embiid said. “But I’ve grown a lot and found ways to take care of myself, and I know what to do [in these situations]. Sometimes you feel tired, but I thought tonight was fine, and I’ll be better as the days go on.”
Even with the miserable performance in Game 2, Philadelphia considered this a highly successful road trip. Embiid was able to get back on the court after missing the past two playoff games with his knee sprain, and the Game 1 victory allowed the 76ers to steal home-court advantage away from the Celtics.
Now, as the series shifts to the City of Brotherly Love for Game 3 on Friday night — when Embiid will all but certainly be honored before the game in front of what will undoubtedly be a raucous crowd at the Wells Fargo Center — Embiid will spend the next couple of days building up his conditioning, and Philadelphia will attempt to maintain its control over home court.
“It’s gonna be great for us,” Sixers guard Tyrese Maxey said. “Philly is gonna show up for us. I know they’re gonna go hard. I know we’re gonna try to protect home court.
“It’s going to be very important that we go there and try to get two. Extremely important. We stole home court, and that was an objective of ours. [We wanted] to get two, but we got one, and now it’s time to go protect it.”
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