2020 Playoffs: First Round | Celtics vs. Sixers

Series Preview: Healthy Celtics back among title contenders

Improved chemistry, growth of Jayson Tatum could prove too much for 76ers

They meet again.

No two NBA franchises have faced each other in the postseason more than the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, but meeting No. 21 will take place amid unique circumstances. This edition of the great Atlantic Division rivalry will come without the raucous crowds of Beantown and Philly.

It will also come without Ben Simmons, who suffered a knee injury in the Sixers’ third seeding game in Orlando. After a lineup change and some revisions to their offense, the Sixers were one of the most intriguing teams in the restart, an underachiever with, perhaps, the highest ceiling among Eastern Conference contenders. But for the third straight season, they enter the postseason at less than 100%.

The Celtics were the underachiever last year. But with improved chemistry, improved health, and a star turn from Jayson Tatum, they’re back among the league’s title contenders. With the NBA’s deepest group of two-way wings, Boston was the only Eastern Conference team that ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

The offense wasn’t so great against the Sixers, who won three of four regular-season meetings. Without Simmons, the Sixers still have the best player in the series, a capable supporting cast (including one guy from that underachieving Celtics team of last season), and only slightly less intrigue than they had prior to the restart.

Three things to watch

1. How much will Simmons’ absence affect the Sixers’ offense? Simmons’ defensive impact is obvious; He led the league in steals (2.1) and ranked third in deflections (3.9) per game. Plus, he was the Sixers’ primary defender against Tatum (see below). Offensively, Simmons in the open floor gives the Sixers some easy points that they can’t get otherwise. They averaged 12.3 fast break points per 36 minutes with him on the floor and only 7.2 per 36 with him off it. But without him, the Sixers are able to simplify their half-court offense and put four shooters on the floor around Embiid in pick-and-rolls or in the post. While the Sixers scored 109.6 points per 100 possessions in 408 minutes with Simmons and Embiid on the floor without Al Horford, they’ve scored 113.3 per 100 in 174 minutes with Horford and Embiid on the floor without Simmons.

2. Is Kemba Walker ready? It was worrisome when, after a 20-week layoff, the Celtics were still being careful with Walker. The guard was still recovering from a left knee injury that kept him out of six of their 10 games between the All-Star break and the hiatus. But Walker played in six of the eight seeding games and had his best performance (19 points on 7-for-10 shooting in 28 minutes) against Memphis on Tuesday, saying afterward that he felt “probably the best I’ve felt out there.” He didn’t get to the basket as much as he did prior to the All-Star break, but he shot 8-for-10 from mid-range and 15-for-34 from 3-point range (not including an end-of-quarter heave). He’s probably not yet full strength, but the postseason outlook appears better than it did two weeks ago.

3. So the Celtics are full strength? And with good timing. After having all of their top five perimeter players for just 14 of their 64 pre-hiatus games, the Celtics had all five for six of their eight seeding games, with the exceptions being days of intentional rest (Walker sat the second game of a back-to-back and all five were held out of the final game). The Celtics are just 13-7 with all five players available, and that includes an 0-2 mark against the Sixers. But they’ve outscored their opponents by 9.8 points per 100 possessions with at least two of the five on the floor and will likely shorten the rotation going forward. Marcus Smart struggled offensively in the seeding games (shooting 9-for-39 over his last six), but the Celtics always have more guys who can get buckets when one or two go cold.

The number to know

24:23 — No player defended Jayson Tatum this season more than Ben Simmons, who guarded the Celtics’ young All-Star for 24 minutes and 23 seconds, according to Second Spectrum tracking. And when Simmons was guarding him, Tatum shot just 5-for-16 (1-for-9 on 2-point shots, 4-for-7 on 3s). With Simmons recovering from knee surgery, the Sixers will need a new primary defender on Tatum, who shot just 33% in the season series overall. The 106.9 points per 100 possessions the Celtics scored against Philly was Boston’s worst mark against any Eastern Conference opponent, though that breaks down to 117.8 per 100 in the two meetings in Boston and just 96.5 in the two meetings in Philly (one of which was the first game of the season).

— John Schuhmann

The pick

The Sixers are without one All-Star, but they still have a huge matchup advantage with the other. If Embiid is healthy and can stay out of foul trouble, Philadelphia is dangerous. Embiid struggled a bit (shooting 18-for-46) in three games against the Celtics this season, but the absence of Simmons could give him more catches in the paint and more room to operate when he makes those catches. And even if he struggles to score, so will the Celtics. Boston scored just 94 points per 100 possessions in the seven-footer’s 83 minutes on the floor (vs. 113 in his 109 minutes off the floor) in the season series. Alas, Embiid can’t play 48 minutes and it’s not clear if he’ll be at or near 100% at when the series starts Monday. The Celtics will have matchup advantages elsewhere, and while Embiid will keep them from getting to the basket, no team has shot more effectively on pull-up jumpers. Celtics in 6.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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