Series Preview: Celtics vs. 76ers
BOSTON – One of the most storied Eastern Conference playoff rivalries is about to be rekindled in a second-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. The two franchises have 12 playoff meetings under their belts, with Boston owning an 8-4 series record to this point.
This edition of the rivalry features a second-seeded Celtics team that's just two days removed from an exhilarating Game 7 win over the Milwaukee Bucks, and a third-seeded Sixers team that has been off for nearly a week, after knocking off the Miami Heat in five games.
Boston won the regular-season series , 3-1, but it has lost a couple of key rotation players since the last meeting between these squads on Jan. 18. Philly, meanwhile, has been the hottest team in the league of late, having won 20 of its last 21 games.
With all of that in mind, here’s how the Atlantic Division foes should match up from top to bottom in a best-of-seven series that begins Monday night at TD Garden.
Head Coaches – Brad Stevens vs. Brett Brown
Brad Stevens and Brett Brown entered the NBA head coaching ranks at the same time, but they have experienced very different levels of success during their five seasons in the league.
Stevens’ regular-season coaching record (221-189) has steadily improved at an annual rate over the last five seasons and he is in the midst of his fourth consecutive playoff run with the Celtics.
Brown, meanwhile, has traveled a much rockier road to this point. The Maine native compiled a 75-253 regular-season record with zero postseason births during his first four seasons in Philly, but trusting the process paid off. This season, the 76ers shocked the NBA world with a 52-win regular season, which ultimately earned them home-court advantage for the first round.
The 76ers have great faith in Brown, seeing as they rode with him at the helm throughout the toughest years of their rebuild. However, Stevens has a clear advantage in this matchup, having coached in seven times as many playoff games as Brown to this point.
Point Guards – Terry Rozier vs. Ben Simmons
It’s difficult to really compare two players like Terry Rozier and Ben Simmons, because their differences in size and style of play prevent them from matching up against each other on a consistent basis.
Simmons’ 6-foot-10 frame is much too large for 6-foot-2 Rozier to guard, and he’s also far too quick for a big man to defend singlehandedly. Therefore, the Celtics will likely use a committee of defenders to try to slow him down.
“It’s not one-on-one against him,” said Al Horford, who was Boston’s go-to defender against Simmons during the regular season. “It’s almost like the whole team has to show a wall, because if he sees a one-on-one seam he’s going to expose you.”
Simmons’ size and speed allowed him to expose a lot of defenders during his rookie season, as he averaged 16.8 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting. He also contributed in other ways, leading all rookies in rebounds per game (8.1) and assists per game (8.2). Against Boston, however, his numbers dipped to 12.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 4.8 APG over four contests.
Rozier, like Simmons, has proven himself to be one of the best rebounding guards in the league, but his offensive skill set is far different than that of his counterpart. Rozier can score the ball in a variety ways, whether he’s driving to the hoop or spotting up from beyond the arc. Simmons, meanwhile, is a more one-dimensional scorer, having not made a single 3-pointer at the NBA level.
Defensively, we’ll likely see Simmons guard Rozier on the perimeter, but as mentioned before, Rozier will rarely have to guard Simmons. Instead, Rozier may be tasked with covering Robert Covington out of the gate, judging by the fact that Covington was Kyrie Irving’s main defensive assignment during the last meeting between these two teams.
While the two point guards bring very different skill sets to the table, they do share one similarity: They are both major catalysts for their respective offensive units, and that should hold true throughout this series.
Shooting Guards – Jaylen Brown vs. J.J. Redick
There is a giant question mark surrounding this matchup, because it’s uncertain whether or not it will actually exist.
Jaylen Brown tweaked his hamstring during Game 7 of the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks, and there has been no update on his playing status entering Round 2.
If the second-year wing does play, the C’s will rely on him as a primary scoring option, just as they did during the opening round when he averaged 17.9 PPG.
Regardless of who starts at the 2 for Boston, J.J. Redick should have the upper hand. The sharpshooter torched the Celtics this season to the tune of 19.3 PPG, while shooting a remarkable 59.1 percent from 3-point range.
Brown, meanwhile, struggled against Philly this season, averaging 11.0 PPG while shooting 37.0 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from 3-point range.
Brown does have a defensive advantage over Redick, but that may be hindered due to his hamstring injury. Redick is one of the peskiest off-ball players in the NBA, constantly moving and cutting on the offensive end. So, covering him effectively would likely be a great challenge for Brown if he tries to play through his hamstring strain.
Small Forwards – Jayson Tatum vs. Robert Covington
Twenty-year-old wing Jayson Tatum is coming off of a strong debut playoff series against the Bucks, having averaged 15.4 PPG while scoring 20-plus points during three of the last four games. However, the rookie could run into some challenges against Sixers forward Robert Covington, who has developed into one of the top perimeter defenders in the league.
Philadelphia was the top-ranked team in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage this season, and Covington’s defense was a major reason why. Tatum can attest to that, having been limited to just four total 3-pointers over four games against the Sixers this season.
With that being said, Tatum still managed to notch 14.3 PPG against Philly, which was nearly half of a point higher than his season scoring average. He was able to counteract the 76ers' strong perimeter defense by attacking inside the arc, where he shot 50.0 percent.
While Tatum is a versatile offensive weapon, Covington is more one dimensional on that end. More than 65 percent of his shot attempts came from 3-point land this season, and he converted those shots at a slightly above average clip of 36.9 percent.
Against the C’s this season, Covington scored only 8.3 points per game while shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and 28.0 percent from downtown. But again, defense is more his forte.
Taking into account Tatum’s hot hand and offensive versatility, as well as Covington’s strong defensive reputation, this may prove to be the most tightly-contested individual battle of the series.
Power Forwards – Al Horford vs. Dario Saric
Al Horford and Dario Saric had similar numbers during their four regular-season meetings, but in a playoff matchup, Horford should have the clear upper hand.
Horford is the most experienced postseason player in this entire series, while Saric, like most players on Philadelphia’s roster, is going through the playoff grind for the very first time.
Horford should be able to use his extensive experience to his advantage, just like he did during the first round when he averaged 18.1 PPG and 8.7 RPG, all while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from 3-point range.
Saric had an admirable introduction to the postseason, averaging 16.6 PPG and 6.8 RPG against the Heat. However, he wasn’t nearly as efficient as Horford, having shot just 39.9 percent from the field during the series.
Saric also cooled off as the series went on, totaling just 19 points during the last two games combined. Horford, on the other hand, is fresh off of a playoff career-high 26-point, Game 7 effort against the Bucks.
Horford also has the edge defensively in this matchup, and his versatility on that end should go a long way in this series.
Centers – Aron Baynes vs. Joel Embiid
Aron Baynes was removed from Boston's starting lineup midway through the first round in favor of going small with Horford at the 5 and rookie Semi Ojeleye at the 4. It’s very likely, however, that Stevens will reinsert Baynes as the starting 5 against the 76ers in order to combat the interior dominance of All-Star center Joel Embiid.
There weren’t many teams that successfully defended Embiid this season, but Boston was one of the few exceptions. Against the C’s, he averaged 17.3 points per game while shooting just 38.5 percent from the field, which were both far below his season averages of 22.9 PPG and 48.3 percent shooting from the field.
Baynes’ hard-nosed interior defense had a lot do with that.
With that being said, Embiid’s latest outing against the C’s was a masterpiece. He tallied 26 points, 16 rebounds and six assists on Jan. 18, while leading Philly to its only win of the season against Boston. If Embiid puts together some unstoppable outings like that during this series, then Boston could be in for some trouble.
Boston and Philadelphia have both added a significant role player to their respective bench units since their last meeting, which should add a little bit of extra spice to this series.
The Celtics brought in veteran center Greg Monroe just ahead of the All-Star break, and although he didn’t play much of a role during the first round, he could come of use during the second round as an interior scorer and rebounder. Philadelphia was the No. 1 rebounding team in the league during the regular season, and that’s Monroe’s strongest point, having led the Celtics in rebounding percentage.
On Philly’s side, the newest addition is Marco Belinelli. Since being acquired Feb. 12 off the waiver wire, Belinelli has provided perimeter scoring and an additional veteran presence off the bench. The shooting guard stepped up big during the first round, averaging 16.6 PPG against the Heat.
There are also a few familiar foes that will be featured heavily off the bench. For the Celtics, Marcus Smart should play a key role in defending Redick and other perimeter threats, while Marcus Morris should provide consistent bench scoring just as he has all season long. Ojeleye will also likely earn significant minutes, after playing an increased role during the second half of Round 1.
For Philly, keep an eye on veterans Ersan Ilyasova and Amir Johnson, who both played substantial reserve roles during the first round. No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz could be another X factor off the bench, despite averaging only 7.7 minutes per game during Round 1.