2023 Playoffs: East Conf. Semifinal | Celtics vs. 76ers

Series preview: Joel Embiid's knee injury looms over Celtics-76ers series

Breaking down the Boston-Philadelphia matchup with 3 things to watch, 1 X-factor and a series prediction.

Joel Embiid cashed in 52 points in the Sixers’ only win against the Celtics this season.

The Eastern Conference has its main event in this one — heeding the seeding, no underdog playing its way up from a lower berth. The Celtics needed a game or two more than many of us expected to dispatch Atlanta, but they got here. The Sixers swept their way through the Nets. And now, as Philadelphia forward P.J. Tucker told his guys, “We’ve been playing all year knowing this is what the end result is going to be … this is our season.”

Head to head, this series almost has been played, with Boston taking the first three of four meetings in the regular season. The Sixers’ lone victory in April required 52 points from Joel Embiid on a night when neither Jaylen Brown nor Robert Williams III played. But that was then. The Sixers are on a mission and Embiid, however hobbled by a knee sprain, has a likely Kia MVP honor to justify.

There’s a bonus waiting for the winner: No Milwaukee, the anticipated but now absent East power, to face from the bracket’s other side. Not that either of these teams needed extra incentive, given the history and the stakes.

Regular-season results

Oct. 18: Celtics 126, Sixers 117
Feb. 8: Celtics 106, Sixers 99
Feb. 25: Celtics 110, Sixers 107
April 4: Sixers 103, Celtics 101

3 things to watch

The Sixers will need an aggressive James Harden in their series against the Celtics.

Is Philadelphia’s defense up to this task? The Sixers ranked eighth overall (112.7) in defensive rating this season, but struggled at 119.1 and a net rating of minus-4.9 in the four games against Boston. Eight Celtics averaged double figures, led by wings Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who will stress less-athletic Philadelphia defenders such as Tucker, Tobias Harris, Jalen McDaniels or De’Anthony Melton.

James Harden and his work at the rim. How much does The Beard have left in his tank, and can he dominate offensively when Embiid is off the floor? He took 67 shots for 69 points in the opening round against Brooklyn and after a 7-for-13 night from deep in Game 1, Harden shot 7-for-20 over the final three games. But his 4-for-17 at the rim in the series was the real reveal. He went from 6.2 trips to the foul line during the season to 2.8. That’s not the secondary scorer the Sixers sought or need.

Two coaches in the spotlight. They got to this showdown from dramatically different points on the coaching spectrum, with Doc Rivers ninth (1,097) on the all-time victories list vs. rookie Joe Mazzulla snagging a third-place finish in Coach of the Year balloting. Both get plenty of criticism, Rivers for his repeated inability to close out series and advance (his last Finals team was in 2010) and Mazzulla for too much of a do-nothing atmosphere on the sideline. One of them will reach the East finals, but each needs the championship round to shush skeptics.


With the Celtics and 76ers locked into an Eastern Conference semifinal, the series could simply come down to whether Joel Embiid is healthy.

Joel Embiid’s knee brace. It figures to be well-known as the Philadelphia center’s most important sidekick by the time this series is over. Get familiar with the term “sprained lateral collateral ligament” because that condition in Embiid’s right knee will be in play, particularly when he isn’t, dictating his level of performance. It is the third straight postseason in which injury hangs over the big guy in the conference semifinals, and his effectiveness will be linked to how near or how far he is below 100% good health. Even with him in MVP form, the challenge is, if the Celtics “let” Embiid get his, do the Sixers have enough firepower elsewhere to make them pay?

Number to Know

31 — In their four regular-season meetings, the Sixers attempted 31 free throws per 100 shots from the field, the second-highest rate for any opponent against Boston. Overall, Philly led the league in free throw rate (30 FTA per 100 FGA) while also shooting 83.5% from the line, the second-best mark in NBA history. Embiid was just the seventh player in NBA history to average at least 10 made free throws per game, totaling 661 in his 66 regular season.

With the Nets double-teaming Embiid almost every time he touched the ball (and with him missing Game 4), the Sixers ranked 15th in free throw rate (17.8 attempts per 100 shots from the field) in the first round. The only team with a lower rate (17.6 per 100) was the Celtics’ opponent. Boston ranked third in opponent free throw rate (23.4 per 100) in the regular season.

As noted, the Sixers were able to get to the line against the Celtics, and Philly outscored Boston by 37 points at the stripe over the four games. But Boston was a plus-57 from beyond the arc in winning three of the four, and we could see another battle of free throws vs. 3s in this series.

— John Schuhmann

The pick

Philadelphia is desperate to advance past the second round, something it hasn’t managed in the Embiid era or, actually, since Allen Iverson led the Sixers to the 2001 Finals. A stronger supporting cast was assembled precisely for this moment. But Boston is determined to prove that last spring’s experience against Golden State was their knocking-at-the-door of the franchise’s first title since 2008. Whatever flaws showed at home in Game 5 against the Hawks were cleaned up by the Game 6 clincher. Home court, depth and defense are enough to swing this. Celtics in 6.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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