The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers each have one of the league's best rookies and one of its best second-year players, with even more young talent beyond that. That talent is only going to get better and both teams are set up to rule the Eastern Conference for the next few years.
But for one of these teams of the future, the present includes a trip to the conference finals … and maybe more.
The Sixers have been on a tear over the last six weeks, ending the regular season on a 16-game winning streak and defeating the Miami Heat in five games in the first round, with Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons averaging a triple-double over that 20-1 stretch. The Celtics have been the most resilient team in the league, overcoming a myriad of injuries to play the league's best defense in the regular season and dispatch the Milwaukee Bucks in a seven-game series.
The Celtics got Marcus Smart back for the last three games of the first round, but remain shorthanded with Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward out for the season. Generating offense without Irving has been difficult and it may remain so against the size of the Sixers. Of course, defense has taken the Celtics this far, and it remains ever reliable. The Sixers struggled to score against it in the regular season, but it's been more than three months since these teams last faced each other and a lot has changed for Philadelphia since then.
Three quick questions and answers
1. How have the Celtics managed to survive offensively without Kyrie Irving? In spurts. They ranked 10th offensively (106 points scored per 100 possessions) in the first round, with three games in which they scored less than a point per possession. By switching screens, the Bucks flattened the Celtics out for a few games. After averaging 39 points in the restricted area in Games 1-3, the Celtics averaged just 25 in Games 4-6, before finding a way to get back to the basket in Game 7 to the tune of 50 points in the restricted area.
2. Can Boston slow the Sixers down? Pace could be the key to the series. No team saw a bigger increase in pace from the regular season to the first round than the Heat, because the Sixers controlled the pace over those five games. The Celtics had some trouble in dealing with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the break in the first round, but kept him out of transition in Game 7, in part because they had their best shooting game of the series. Transition defense starts with offensive execution.
3. Is Joel Embiid back at 100 percent? After suffering a broken orbital bone on March 28, Embiid missed the last eight games of the regular season and the first two games of the first round. Upon his return to the lineup in Game 3, he was a force on defense; The Heat shot just 5-for-19 at the rim when he was there to protect it. But he was a little rusty on offense, shooting just 42 percent and turning the ball over 15 times in three games. If the rust has worn off and he has adjusted to wearing his protective mask, the Sixers' offense will only be more dangerous than it was in the first round.
The number to know
11.2 -- The Sixers averaged 11.2 miles traveled on offense per 24 minutes of possession against Miami, most in the first round. Philly has surrounded its two young stars with shooters (five different Sixers attempted at least 17 3-pointers over their five-game series with Miami) and they never stop moving. The Sixers move the ball (they also led the first round with 387 passes per 24 minutes of possession), they move bodies, and they're difficult to guard. The Celtics had the No. 1 defense in the regular season and the 95 points per 100 possessions they held the Sixers to in the season series the fewest Philly scored against any opponent. With more size on the perimeter, the Celtics match up better with the Sixers than Miami did. But the Sixers' offense has improved dramatically since the last time these two teams faced each other (Jan. 18).
Making the pick
The Celtics have home-court advantage, and they made the most of it in the first round, winning all four games at TD Garden. They shut down the Sixers' offense in the regular season, but these Sixers are not the Sixers of January, and they won the first two road playoff games that four of their five starters ever played in. The Celtics can slow the Philly offense down somewhat, but Boston probably doesn't have enough offense of its own to win four games. Sixers in 6.
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