Series Preview: Celtics vs. 76ers
Following a five-month regular season, a four-and-a-half month hiatus, and a two-week seeding game restart, playoff basketball is finally upon us. And what better way to start things off than with a first-round series between two of the most storied rivals in NBA postseason history?
The stage is set inside the Florida bubble for the third-seeded Boston Celtics and the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers to face off in their league-record 22nd postseason series beginning Monday night at 6:30 p.m. Boston enters with a 13-8 all-time advantage and has not lost a series to Philly since 1982. Most recently, the Celtics beat Philadelphia 4-1 in 2018 to help them earn a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals.
However, both teams are taking on a much different look heading into this chapter of their rivalry, which means there are plenty of new storylines to explore. With that being said, let’s dive into some of the essential topics heading into this matchup.
How Will Philly Adjust to Life Without Simmons?
The 76ers suffered a massive blow to their rotation last week when it was announced that Ben Simmons would have to undergo surgery to remove a foreign body from his left knee, which would sideline him indefinitely. Losing an All-Star just before heading into the postseason is far from ideal, especially when that player is basically the quarterback of your offense.
Unlike the Celtics, the 76ers don’t have many players who can consistently create their own shots. They mostly relied upon Simmons’ facilitation to help out with that. One positive for Philadelphia is that it can place more shooters on the floor when Simmons is not in the game, but that won’t make up for his playmaking void.
As for what Simmons’ absence means for Philly’s defense? Well, that’s an entirely different issue, which will be addressed in the next section.
Can the Sixers Contain Boston’s Wings?
As great of an impact that Simmons makes on the offensive end, his defense is what the Sixers will likely miss most while facing a Celtics team that is loaded with talented wings. Philadelphia will need all the help it can get defending the likes of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum, who all excelled during the regular season.
Simmons, who led the NBA in steals this season, would have likely spent a great deal of time on Tatum, as he is able to match up with the All-Star wing’s combination of speed and length. The Sixers have a pair of tough perimeter defenders in Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle, but both of those guys would have a substantial length disadvantage in going up against Tatum. Therefore, Tatum could see the familiar face of Al Horford in his grill throughout this series.
Even if the 76ers found a way to contain Boston’s leading scorer, they would still have to deal with the likes of Brown and Hayward on the perimeter, who have both been thriving inside the bubble of late. Add Kemba Walker into the mix, and “they have four players that can get 30 (points) on a given night,” as Sixers coach Brett Brown pointed out. It should be a nightmare game-planning for such a group, especially now that Philly will be without its top perimeter defender.
Which Version of Embiid Will the Celtics See?
There is no question that Boston is the favorite to win this first-round matchup. However, if Joel Embiid can be the best player in this series, it will make things far more challenging for the Celtics.
In the past, Embiid has shown the ability to dominate Boston, just as he did on Dec. 12 when he logged 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists during a 115-109 win in Philly. Though, the Celtics have also displayed the ability to contain him, as they did on Feb. 1 when they held him to 11 points on 1-of-11 shooting during a 116-95 win on their home court.
So, which Embiid will we get during this series? It all depends on how locked in Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis are on the defensive end. Neither of those players can match Embiid’s combination of size and strength. But, as they showed in February, they can at least make things difficult on him. This is an ideal matchup for Kanter, who struggles to defend stretch bigs, but can hold his own against body-banging interior scorers like Embiid.
However, the biggest challenge for Boston’s bigs will be not getting into foul trouble. Embiid leads the league in fouls drawn per game, and if the Celtics’ frontcourt guys have trouble staying disciplined while defending him, then that opens up the door for Embiid to take over.
In order for Philadelphia to have a legitimate chance in this series, Embiid will have to dominate. Therefore, limiting his production must be the top priority for Boston.
Will Robert Williams Carve Out a Role?
Speaking of Boston’s bigs, it should be intriguing to see whether or not Robert Williams will carve out a consistent role during this series. One of the top storylines of the seeding games was his emergence into Boston’s rotation, as he tallied 10.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, while averaging 13.0 minutes over the last five games. He also shot a whopping 84.6 percent from the field during that span.
This series would be a great test for Williams in going up against the size and strength of Philly’s frontcourt. Embiid has a 40-pound advantage over Williams, so that would obviously be a mismatch. However, Williams could potentially be used as a lob threat against the likes of Horford. His shot-blocking skills could also come in handy on the defensive end.
One possible indication of Williams’ upcoming role came during Boston’s last seeding game on Thursday. Coach Brad Stevens rested his main rotation players during the meaningless regular-season finale against Washington, and Williams was among them, playing only about five minutes. It’s possible that, just like the other main rotation guys, he was being rested up so that he’d be ready to play significant minutes in the first round.
Will Playoff Horford Rise Again?
Celtics fans should be familiar with Al Horford’s tendency to rise to the occasion during the Playoffs, as he did so during all three of his postseason appearances while playing in Boston. This time, it’ll be the Celtics’ job to prevent such a rise out of the 13-year veteran, who has yet to miss a playoff berth in his career.
Horford’s regular-season production dropped off a bit during his first campaign in Philly, as he saw his scoring dip from 13.6 PPG to 11.9 PPG and watched his field goal percentage plummet from 53.5 percent to 45.0 percent. However, he saw a spike in efficiency during the seeding games, as his shooting clip jumped back up 54.5 percent, including an impressive 52.6 percent clip from 3-point range.
Horford also has a couple of mental advantages entering this series: one being the intel he has on Boston’s coaching and playing style, and two being the chip on his shoulder in going up against his former team.
Horford’s veteran presence will be of utmost importance for the inexperienced 76ers, just as it had been for Boston over the previous three postseasons. And the Celtics know all too well how capable he is of rising to the occasion at this time of year.
Don’t Sleep on Milton and Richardson
A ton of emphasis is placed upon Philadelphia’s talented frontcourt trio of Embiid, Horford and Tobias Harris, but the Sixers’ backcourt of Shake Milton and Josh Richardson can’t be overlooked. Both of those players have proven to be capable scorers over the course of the season and could be X-factors for Philadelphia’s offense.
The Celtics have seen first-hand how Richardson can make an impact, as he scored 29 points against them on Jan. 9, which included a 10-for-10 effort from the free-throw line. Milton, meanwhile, has been the biggest surprise of the year for Philly, as he went from playing a limited role in 20 games last season to earning a starting role during the second half of this season. His most impressive outing came just before the hiatus when he sunk seven 3-pointers en route to a career-high 39-point effort against the LA Clippers on March 1.
So, even though there will be no Simmons in this series, Philly’s starting backcourt of Milton and Richardson is still capable of packing a punch.
How Will Kemba’s Knee Hold Up?
Kemba Walker’s left knee flared up again upon entering the NBA bubble, causing the Celtics to take a cautious approach with his playing time during the seeding games. The goal was to have him feeling great by the start of the Playoffs, and it seems as though he’s right on track.
Walker gradually ramped up his minutes over the course of his last six games, peaking with 32 minutes against Orlando. Following his last game against Memphis, he declared that he was feeling the that best he’s felt since entering the bubble. Stevens echoed that sentiment on Saturday, as the coach stated, “The knee is fine. He’s ready to roll.”
From a playing standpoint, Walker has been on a roll ever since he stepped foot inside the bubble. He shot 49.1 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from deep during his six outings since the restart, which were both well above his season-long clips of 42.1 percent field and 37.7 percent, respectively.
In order to maintain such efficiency, Walker just needs to focus on keeping his knee healthy. And if he does that, he could have a chance to enjoy the first lengthy postseason run of his career.