Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers: Series Preview
With the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs set, long-time rivals Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers will look to do battle beginning August 17th, at 6:30 pm ET. While both teams entered the season as potential Eastern Conference champions, it was truly a tale of two seasons for the Atlantic Division foes.
The Celtics were pegged to regress with the departures of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, and the 76ers figured to use their massive size advantage across the five positions to overwhelm opponents. While Boston exceeded expectations and Philly had a somewhat disappointing regular season, the slates are wiped clean as the stage is set for round one of the playoffs.
It would be a complete disservice to basketball fans, especially fans of the 76ers, to not acknowledge the injured elephant in the room. Philly star guard/forward Ben Simmons will be sidelined for the entirety of the playoffs, as a knee injury sustained during the seeding games will require corrective surgery. A massive asset to Philly’s team, Simmons served as the 76ers best playmaker and perimeter defender, which would have been useful against Boston’s “Murderer’s Row” of perimeter scorers.
Boston has also seen it’s star point guard Kemba Walker hampered by a knee injury, though the prognosis seems to be encouraging for the team in green. Kemba has played the seeding games on a minute restriction, though according to head coach Brad Stevens, Walker should be “ready to roll”.
Brad Stevens says Kemba Walker is ready to roll and hints that there's no minutes limit for Walker entering the playoffs, as planned.
— Jared Weiss (@JaredWeissNBA) August 15, 2020
In addition to Walker, it will be worth keeping an eye on 76ers superstar big man Joel Embiid. Embiid figures to play a central role in the Sixers’ plan on both sides of the ball and will shoulder a heavy load, though a tweaked ankle sustained during the seeding games could prove to be troublesome for Philadelphia.
Along with the well-known stars, the Boston Celtics will also be down rookie guard Romeo Langford for the series. Langford had been earning minutes in coach Brad Stevens’ rotation prior to the injury. Stevens was adding him in as a defensive stopper on the perimeter.
Boston Celtics Gameplan
These are two very different teams, with two very different playstyles. Philly is big. Boston is small. It’s simple, but it can really be boiled down to just that. Philly’s Joel Embiid is a hulking 7″0′ who plays a punishing brand of basketball. Former Celtic, current sixer big Al Horford is a unique blend of size, finesse, and feel who always impacts the game, even when his shot isn’t falling.
The Boston Celtics frontcourt consists of the 6″8′ Daniel Theis and Jaylen Brown. Though Brown is typically slotted in as a two-guard, he happens to be the best Boston wing capable of banging down low with more traditional bigs. Brown is adept at leveraging his length and strength on the block, though he is not the ideal defensive four against a Twin Towers lineup Philly can deploy. Expect Philly to relentlessly work the ball inside for the duration of the series.
Where Philly has brute strength, Boston has speed and finesse. Boston has two elite scorers on the perimeter in Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. Philly has one bonafide perimeter stopper. Respect to Matisse Thybulle, but asking a rookie to guard Tatum and/or Walker for the series is a very tall order.
In addition to their elite scorers, Boston also has two very good scorers, who double as sharpshooters sharing the floor with Tatum and Walker. Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown have been walking beacons of efficiency this season, slashing 50/38/85 and 48/38/72, respectively, on a combined 37.8 points per game.
That sort of opportunistic offense could spell trouble for a Philly team that will send their perimeter defensive kitchen sink at Walker and Tatum.
Boston’s starting center Daniel Theis offers an interesting matchup for Embiid, as well. Where his lack of size is a decided disadvantage in the paint against Embiid, his knack for shooting and activity in the pick and roll could be enough to keep the Philly big man working on both sides for the whole series.
Defensively, Boston should know where Philly wants to get the ball. They know the Celtics don’t have a soul who can take Embiid one-on-one on the block. Expect a lot of Daniel Theis staying home on Embiid, making his life difficult in any way possible. If Embiid gets Theis on the block, that’s barbecue chicken. Theis has to be active in denying the ball. Expect a healthy dose of double teams from Brown, Tatum, and Marcus Smart when he does get the ball, too.
That being said, the brunt of Boston’s defensive gameplan should revolve around the perimeter. They need to pressure the ball handler and make it difficult to move the ball to Embiid. With the 76ers lacking a true point guard, this task is very doable. Even if Embiid puts up a herculean effort all series, it may not be enough if Philly’s perimeter players, like Tobias Harris, don’t step up.
Losing Ben Simmons really, really hurts this Philadelphia team. Even if he is allergic to outside shots, his brilliance as a passer and defender steeply raise this team’s ceiling. With Simmons leading the charge, Philadelphia could be an excellent transition team. Without him, this team has to be committed to keeping this a halfcourt series. Boston can’t compete with their size, and they need to do everything to expose that.
Arguably the best player on the court at all times, Embiid has to be constantly reminding Boston of that. With Philly’s lack of perimeter shooting, Boston will be comfortable throwing their entire defense at Embiid for stretches. Still, this might not be enough. No one in green has the size to bang with Embiid on the block, and it doesn’t matter how many outstretched arms are out if none of them are long enough to consistently bother Embiid.
Without a true point guard, it will be imperative for Philly to get as many good looks as they can. They need to make their bones on defense, keep the ball in play and keep Boston on their heels. Moving the ball, shooting open looks, and hunting 6″0′ Kemba Walker will be their key to easy buckets.
In addition to Embiid, the Sixers will lean heavily on Tobias Harris as a scorer and general offensive presence. They need a consistent scoring presence that will scare Boston’s best perimeter defenders from swooping in and doubling Embiid with much consistency.
While Harris no doubt has a role to play in this series, this will almost certainly boil down to Embiid and how dominant he can be on defense. If Boston can’t rely on baskets in the paint, who knows how well the jumpers will fall this series. How dominant he can be as a scorer is another key factor. If Boston can’t move him off the block, he could just get easy baskets all series.
But, what may be the most important factor in all of this, is how well Embiid handles the double-teams. They are coming. If he becomes turnover-prone and lets Boston get out and run, it’s curtains for Philly. If he can expose the defensive weak points Boston leaves from sending extra defenders at him, that’s a different story. Philly needs their perimeter players to step up and knock down their shots. If they do that, this could be a long, competitive series.
Boston Celtics def. Philadelphia 76ers in Game Five