With TD Garden chanting “NOT A ROOKIE” whenever Ben Simmons touched the ball and the Celtics sticking to single coverage, Game 1 turned into a giant dare. Ben Simmons, we dare you to shoot. Ben Simmons, we dare you to beat Al Horford off the dribble. Ben Simmons, do Ben Simmons things.
Boston treated 24-year-old Joel Embiid the same way. If The Process got the ball on the low block, the Celtics didn’t overreact and double team. They stuck to their guns--or better put, the Sixers’ gunners--and forced Embiid to beat them single-handedly.
Call it the Giannis Antetokounmpo Defence or The Greek Freak Gambit or whatever. It was their game plan against Milwaukee and it was their defensive strategy going into Game 1:
“I think that you’re just going to have to balance that as the series goes on,” Stevens said. “(Embiid) can get 31 in isolation, but if you’re doubling him an everything else, are you giving up 33 because you’re leaving shooters? It’s a fine line, it’s a balancing act. That’s what makes it really hard to play these guys because they are so talented and they find the hot guy.”
Box score enthusiasts and rotisserie players will delight in Embiid and Simmons’ lines. Embiid finished with 31 points on 12-for-21 shooting. He hit a pair of threes and was nearly perfect from the line. Simmons nearly had a triple double with 18-7-6. However, it was the Sixers’ supporting cast that ultimately suffered. Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Ersan Ilyasova were 0-for-10 from behind the arc; to put that into perspective, they burned the Heat, hitting 32-of-86.
Philadelphia won’t shoot that poorly again, but that shouldn’t dissuade Brad Stevens from employing a similar strategy on Thursday for Game 2 and the rest of the series. The NBA is a superstar league, especially when it comes to the playoffs, and instead of trying to cut off the head of the snake, he’ll be satisfied immobilizing the rest of the body.
It’s sound X’s and O’s, but I wonder if it isn’t also part psychological warfare by Brad. The growth mindset guru has slow played his own players’ development all season. When the team was healthy to start the season, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum were complementary parts to Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford. For the most part, their job would be to attack close outs and shoot open shots whenever Boston’s Big Three created plays for them to finish. Now, out of necessity, those players have stepped into bigger roles, but it’s been a gradual graduation for Brown and Tatum (and Marcus Smart before them). Terry Rozier has had more of a trial by fire after Irving went down at the end of the regular season, but this is also his third season of being the back up point guard behind Isaiah Thomas and Irving. It’s been a long time coming. You get a sense that they’ve grown into this stardom and grabbed the reigns themselves rather than being thrust into it.
For Embiid and Simmons, The Process has put them front and center like child actors in a summer blockbuster. McCauley Culkin and Haley Joel Osment should be cautionary tales. Simmons has been dubbed the prince to LeBron’s king and Embiid has invited the attention, not only with his play but his public persona and social media bravado. GM Bryan Colangelo has built a team of shooters around them and said, “this is your team. Go be The Man.” That’s pressure for anybody including supremely talented superstars and in the NBA playoffs when the whistle is in their favor and the attention and spotlight shine brighter, they’re expected to perform as superstars. It's a blessing and a curse.
Danny Ainge’s rebuild hasn’t been that deliberate. Instead, he’s identified players in the draft and free agency that fit a culture and system. It’s not “come to the Celtics and be a star.” It’s “be a part of our team.” While The Process has seemingly delivered two superstars to Philadelphia, The Progress in Boston has fortified the foundation of the franchise with a mindset that has this depleted team
thinking knowing that they can win this series.