After five weeks filled with food critique, vlogs, basketball games, and zero (!!) Covid-19 positives, the NBA playoffs are about to begin. Seven out of eight series are locked in, with only the Lakers awaiting the winner of the Portland Trailblazers and Memphis Grizzlies play-in game(s).
While all of the series will have their share of storylines, perhaps the most intriguing will come from the middle of the Eastern Conference bracket. The Philadelphia 76ers will meet the longtime rival Boston Celtics as the 3-6 matchup.
Without further ado, let’s jump into a breakdown of the series based on some arbitrarily created categories.
Boston: Kemba Walker – Jaylen Brown – Jayson Tatum – Gordon Hayward – Daniel Theis
Philadelphia: Shake Milton – Josh Richardson – Tobias Harris – Al Horford – Joel Embiid
The injury to Ben Simmons certainly throws a wrench into what the Sixers can do defensively against Boston. Simmons’ defense was brilliant this season and likely will earn him first-team All-defense honors. He shadowed Tatum in each of their four regular-season games, holding him to point totals of 21, 15, 15 and 25 on a combined 24 for 72 (33 percent) shooting.
Without Simmons, the Sixers will have to get creative to match-up with the Celtic’s multiple scorers. Richardson is their best guard defender, so he should get most of the Walker duties. Milton, whose defense has been less than stellar, would be left to guard the bulkier Brown. That means Harris, who’s an improved but slow-footed defender, would get the honor of hounding the 22-year-old All-Star.
Horford will guard Hayward while Embiid will patrol the middle against Theis, rounding out the match-ups of the starting five.
Milton on Brown is an apparent mismatch, and it will be interesting to see how often the Celtics let him go to work in the post. Tatum shouldn’t be too fretted at the sight of Harris either, and Hayward may try to take the slower Horford off the dribble.
On the other side, the Celtics can match-up more conventionally. Walker will guard the opposing point guard Milton while Brown will guard Richardson. Tatum will guard Harris across from him, leaving Hayward tasked with guarding the bigger Horford. Embiid and Theis will stay matched up in the middle.
The only mismatch there is Horford against the smaller Hayward, though the Sixers may be wary of resorting to Horford post-ups as a primary source of offense. The Celtics have a clear advantage from the opening tip.
Philadelphia: Alec Burks – Matisse Thybulle – Furkan Korkmaz – Glenn Robinson III – Mike Scott
Boston: Marcus Smart – Brad Wanamaker – Enes Kanter – Semi Ojeleye – Grant Williams
Coaches are fickle in the post-season, so some of those names may not see the court, but the first few on there are likely to play significant roles in how this series turns out.
Burks has been a microwave for the Sixers in the bubble. He excels at pulling-up from deep and the midrange off the dribble, a skill that the team sorely lacks. Unfortunately for him, he may see a lot of Smart when he comes in. Smart’s stellar defense could mitigate the bench-scoring that Burks would bring.
Thybulle could be an X-Factor reserve for the Sixers. Head coach Brett Brown acknowledged as much in his post-game presser Friday night, saying about the rookie, “He is going to be huge, as a defensive requirement … I cannot understate that.”
With the previously outlined defensive match-ups leaving room for concern, Thybulle will see a hefty role in this series. He will see time guarding Walker as well as Tatum. The key for Thybulle will be to stay disciplined and defend without fouling. If he can do that and knock down some threes when open, he could find himself in the crunch-time lineup.
After Smart, the Celtics bench can look a little thin. Kanter will likely be used as the back-up center as he provides more resistance to an Embiid post-up, but he can fall flat guarding pick-and-rolls. Ojeleye is a defensive stopper that can defend the likes of Harris, but his offense will come and go.
Both teams may feature short rotations as this series goes along, but the edge here slightly belongs to the Celtics on the back of Smart’s proven productivity.
Philadelphia: Brett Brown
Boston: Brad Stevens
Stevens and Brown both began their tenures with the 2013-14 season. They had met once before in the playoffs when the Celtics dispatched the Sixers in five games back in 2018.
Stevens is a top-tier coach, while Brown has dealt with rumors of dismissal since those playoffs. While Stevens is the better coach, Brown did hold his own against Nick Nurse last season in the series against the Toronto Raptors.
In this series, the coaching decisions made from game to game will be put under a microscope by each of these team’s large local media base. If things go poorly on Brown’s end, the scrutiny could lead to his dismissal.
The most crucial decisions Brown will have to make will be on the defensive end. Due to the mismatches across the board, the Sixers will have to jiggle with their defensive schemes.
The Sixers usually play drop defense when defending pick-and-rolls. The scheme involves the defender guarding the ball-handler fighting over the screen and chasing the ball-handler from behind, while the big man guarding the screener dops into the paint to protect from a layup or a lob. The goal here is to goad the ball-handler into settling for a mid-range jump shot while contesting it from behind.
This scheme works when the guard defenders are active and engaged, as it takes a certain energy level to fight over a screen and get back into the play to prevent an open floater. Simmons, Richardson and Thybulle have been great this season at executing this.
Without Simmons, though, there could be holes. Harris does not have the footwork and recovery speed to get around a screen and contest. Nor does Milton, who tends to get taken out of plays when picked. If the Celtics start to feast with floaters and open jumpers, Brown will need to adjust.
He could switch to a trap, where the man guarding the screener rushes out to double team the ball handler before recovering back to the rollover. The adjustment would force the Celtics’ ball-handlers to make crisp passes out of those plays to take advantage of a 4-on-3. Brown could also opt for switching, but this would leave players like Embiid and Horford to guard wings one-on-one, and it could also lead to the Celtics seeking out Milton or Korkmaz.
Stevens will have his own decisions to make on defense. The Sixers run post-ups more than any team in the league, and by a significant margin. Embiid carries those numbers, but Horford and Harris like to back down smaller players when given a chance.
How often the Celtics send a double for these post-ups, and how well the Sixers bigs handle them, will be a pivotal battle to watch.
Embiid has improved his passing out of double teams in the bubble, but expect the Celtics to test him further in that regard. Stevens should be sending help from every direction to show Embiid’s different looks.
It may be wise to guard Horford Straight up, as his passing is a strength and he won’t do as much damage out of repeated post-ups. Harris, meanwhile, is a weak passer, but the Celtics have the players to guard him one-on-one, so a double team may only come in case of an emergency.
Both coaches will have tough decisions regarding their rotation, which could be shortened to as few as eight players if the series goes the distance.
Statistics to Watch
In the four games these two teams played this season, two statistics jumped out: rebounding and free throw rate.
In the three games the Sixers won, they posted offensive rebounding rates of 32 percent, 33 percent and 31 percent. Those rates were about ten points higher than the Celtics in those games, per CleaningtheGlass. In the game that Boston won this season, the offensive rebounding rates were very similar, about 27 percent for each.
Rebounding will be crucial for this series as the Sixers try to keep the pace. Without Simmons, this will require Embiid going into overdrive down low. He is capable of this in short bursts, but it is unclear if he can sustain that kind of effort for heavy minutes.
The Sixers won the free throw battle in their three wins as well, and this will be another key as the team tries to advance to round two. In the game won by the Celtics, they paraded to the line, putting up a free throw rate of 36.5 percent.
If the Sixers defend without fouling and get to the line often, they could give themselves a chance to beat this Boston team. If the Celtics match the Sixers in the paint, it could be a short series.
Every good playoff series comes with a little animosity. For this series to get feisty, it will be on the backs of two players: Marcus Smart and Joel Embiid.
Those two have had a history of getting into fracases in the past, and the playoff intensity is excellent tinder for potential extracurriculars. Outside of the two usual suspects, this series may be rather tame.
Harris, Horford and Milton are generally mild-mannered. Brown, Tatum, and Walker take the high road as well. All it takes is one hard foul to spark disdain, but it is unlikely we see any all-out brawls.
While the Sixers have potentially the best player in the series in Embiid, the rest of the roster without Simmons is going to have trouble handling the Celtics scorers. Barring a dominant performance from the center, expect the Celtics to take care of business in round one—Celtics in five.