Celtics vs. 76ers: The backstory
The Celtics come limping into the conference semifinals after surviving against the Bucks despite a limited roster and a significant talent gap. Give credit to Boston - the team could have folded up once it lost Kyrie Irving for the season to a knee injury. But it could have done so, too, after losing Gordon Hayward on opening night, and instead went on to 55 wins.
But beating Milwaukee is one thing. The Sixers are quite another. Philadelphia entered the postseason on a 16-game winning streak, and by pulverizing the Heat in five games in the opening round, have now won 20 of 21 games. In that span, Philadelphia's margin of victory has been 13.3 points.
It was after the Sixers' only loss, in Game 2, that the team brought back center Joel Embiid from an eye injury that required surgery to his orbital bone, and now requires him to wear a mask while playing. Embiid's physical play, imposing defense, attitude and the fact that he went to the free-throw line 11.0 times per game in the three games in which he played more than made up for the fact that he shot just 41.7 percent from the field in his first playoff series.
Besides, the story of the Sixers' first-round performance was the balance the team achieved on the offensive end with six players averaging double-digit scoring. Rookie Ben Simmons averaged 18.2 points (as well as 10.6 rebounds and 9.0 assists), and veteran shooter J.J. Redick led the team with 20.0 points per game. Dario Saric (16.6 points) was underrated in his contribution, and the two new guys - midseason pickups Marco Bellinelli (16.6) and Ersan Ilyasova (10.8) - played big bench roles.
The Celtics just can't match that level of depth. Jaylen Brown (who sat out the second half of Game 7 with an apparent hamstring injury) was the team's most reliable scorer in the opening round, and Al Horford was the most consistent in all phases. Terry Rozier was a boom-or-bust wildcard, and rookie Jayson Tatum struggled overall, averaging 15.4 points per game and making just 30.8 percent of his 3s.
But peering into the crystal ball, the way things are shaping up in the East, this will be just the first of many meaningful playoff matchups between these up-and-coming squads. With both teams at full health, this would be a doozy of a series.
And maybe next year, with Irving and Hayward on the floor and with Embiid, Simmons and Saric having another year of growth (as well as a potential big-time free agent signing), we'll get the kind of Sixers-Celtics series that can truly reboot this old-school rivalry.
Until then, Boston looks like but a speed bump on the Sixers' path to the conference finals.
The key player
The Celtics did a good job throughout their series with the Bucks of making things difficult, when possible, on Milwaukee stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, while also understanding that the real challenge was to keep the other Bucks players from inflicting damage. Expect that to be the the approach with Simmons and Embiid.
For the Sixers, the list of "other players" begins with Redick, who was not exactly an ace from the 3-point line in the Miami series (35.1 percent shooting from the arc). But Redick pieced together three games of 24 points or more, and the Sixers won those four games.
He probably will have to contend with a lot of defensive irritant Marcus Smart in his mug, but if Redick is knocking down shots, the Sixers offense is tough to beat - including the playoffs, Philly was 19-6 this year when Redick scored 20 or more points.
The big number
35.7. During the regular season, when he was lined up against Celtics big man Al Horford, Embiid shot only 35.7 percent from the field and scored 6.0 points on 21.5 possessions per game. That could be critical in this series, as coach Brad Stevens will have to decide how to deploy Horford defensively.
It's a tribute to Horford's versatility that he also guarded Simmons frequently in the regular season, allowing 2.7 points on 22.7 possessions, and only 33.3 percent shooting. Horford can't guard both, of course, and Boston will use plenty of Aron Baynes on Embiid and Marcus Morris/Jaylen Brown on Simmons.
But if Embiid looks like he will be the offensive key for the Sixers in the series, that 35.7 percent mark might be the factor that pushes Stevens to keep Horford on him.
Celtics vs. 76ers: The prediction
Boston's best shot will be to muck up these games, slow the tempo and keep the score low - the Celtics simply can't score with the Sixers.
While the Celtics have grit, intangibles and all those niceties, the Sixers have talent, and a lot more of it. We'll take talent every time.
Sixers in 6
NBA playoff schedule: Celtics vs. 76ers
(All times Eastern)
|Game 1||April 30||8 p.m.||Celtics||76ers|
|Game 2||May 3||8:30 p.m.||Celtics||76ers|
|Game 3||May 5||5 p.m.||76ers||Celtics|
|Game 4||May 7||6 p.m.||76ers||Celtics|
|Game 5*||May 9||TBD||Celtics||76ers|
|Game 6*||May 11||TBD||76ers||Celtics|
|Game 7*||May 13||TBD||Celtics||76ers|
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