In the postseason, scouting reports and attention to detail ramp way up. Coaching staffs have scouts who compile data, film clips, and information for an entire season for these exact moments. It’s their time to shine.
Every NBA team has tendencies. Sometimes, its about their offensive system: plays they like to run, spots on the floor guys gravitate to, tells and hand gestures that give away what is about to come. Sometimes it’s player tendencies: successes guys have in certain actions, how they score their points, and what matchups they struggle with most.
As a long-time rival and a team the Celtics are familiar with, assembling a quality game plan shouldn’t be the most burdensome task. Our hope is to look inside some of the facets that might be found on an NBA scouting report and see what they might tell us about the first-round series.
Joel Embiid - 7’0 center
- 38.6% of usage comes from post-ups, where he scores 9.1 points per game
- When on left block, taking a hook shot 56% of the time
- Counter moves: baseline fadeaway - best to force him away from the middle
- Faces up on 43% of his post-ups. Can be turned into mid-post shooter which is a win
- Make him a jump shooter: 2.8 3-point attempts in wins, 4.3 attempts in losses
- Solid shooter, but not an elite pick-and-pop threat (36.3%). Don’t sell out on helping there
- Foul prone: Philly is 7-6 when he has 5 or more fouls
- Best when he draws contact: 14-5 when he has 10+ free throw attempts
Tobias Harris - 6’8 Wing/ Forward
- Effective three-level scorer. Averaging 21.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.5 apg since All-Star break
- Key variance in his 3-point shooting: 40.7% in wins, 30.8% in losses
- Seeks contact in lane while playing off two feet. Don’t jump into him on pump fakes
- Very patient, cerebral in pick-and-rolls. Loves patient hostage dribble, strong passer
- Middle DHOs for him. Need to attach to him when his head is under the rim
- Find him off Horns sets. Flare screens from right elbow, down screen/ DHO from left corner
- Mismatch switch option who can play in post. Team struggles to space floor around him
Josh Richardson - 6’5 Guard
- Jack-of-all-trades, master of none on offense. Consistent, but rarely has scoring outbursts
- Can go under on his screens in the PNR. Only 8-23 this year when opponents go under
- Not a great finisher or mid-range game, so funneling him to mid-range is fine option
- Streaky three-point shooter. Can’t give him room to raise off wing dribble handoffs
- Sixers need his offense to win series, but can he create late-clock in spotlight?
- Long, active defender. Likes to extend his defensive pressure far beyond arc
Al Horford - 6’10 Big
- Smart veteran presence ill-fitting alongside Embiid. Expect PHI to toggle their minutes
- Combo is -0.1 points per 100 possessions. Can Celtics exploit that with their speed?
- Hi-Lo sets in middle of floor when they share floor. When just Horford, more spread PNR
- He’s hot lately - 52.6% from 3 inside bubble
- Smart PNR defender, but struggles at the 4. Has guarded Jaylen Brown in earlier games
- More playmaker in middle-third of floor, spot-up option in outer-parts/corners
Shake Milton - 6’5 Guard
- Fifth-option combo on the floor to provide spacing around Embiid/ Horford duo
- Very strong catch-and-shoot guy (45.2%) - best while standing in corners
- 4.3 assists per game since moving into starting lineup. Capable playmaker
- Don’t underestimate him in pick-and-roll. Smart player, crafty finisher in lane w/ fakes
- Loves quick give-and-go when initiating offense
- Prone to check out at moments. Can be blitzed in full-court, doesn’t hustle back on D
Furkan Korkmaz - 6’6” wing
- First wing off the bench; in the game for catch-and-shoot (42.8%) ability
- Spends a ton of time in the corners. Lots of down screens for him out of Horns sets
- Celtics can attack him on switches or 1-on-1 situations. Subpar lateral defender
Matisse Thybulle - 6’5 wing
- Tenacious on-ball defender. Incredibly active hands, great length, trying to be a disruptor
- Prolific in one-on-one matchups on D and will get heavy minutes against Celtics’ wings
- Improving catch-and-shoot threat. Doesn’t add much else on offense right now
Mike Scott - 6’8 stretch-4
- Shooting big who gets most of his minutes at the 4.
- Gets most of his offensive impact from spot-up, not from pick-and-pops
- Not as weak a defender as you might think. Wouldn’t work to target him one-on-one off switches
Alec Burks - 6’6 scoring guard
- Strong-bodied veteran combo guard who is in there to get his. Averaging 12.2 ppg in PHI
- Shooting the ball well in bubble (57.1% from 3) - might see uptick in minutes w/o Simmons
- Not someone to take advantage of via post switches; can be targeted in PNR attack
Raul Neto - 6’1 point guard
- Veteran backup PG getting minutes w/o Simmons. Solid minutes w/ second unit
- More of a creator out of pick-and-roll than a scorer. Can knock down open shots
- Thin body and subpar athleticism. Can be attacked on switches by bigger wings
What Are They Running?
The Sixers are 19th in pace and one of the most methodical, deliberate teams in the half-court. Once there, they’ll need to manufacture spacing - or at least had to when Simmons was healthy. Part of how they do that is through a set-based approach to offense. They have offensive principles, but don’t have a motion or base offense.
Those set plays are designed for certain players, and come out of similar formations. The Sixers hammer home elbow touches, playing through Embiid or Horford. Different cuts or movements around the elbow dictate what play is coming next.
One of the most common that Brett Brown will dial up out of a timeout is a middle down screen for Embiid to take an elbow jumper:
Because the sets are meant to get the ball to certain players, one cut can clue the Celtics into who needs to be on high alert.
The most versatile player on their roster is Harris, a balanced scorer who has size, speed, and shooting. They’ll post him up, bring him off screens, let him handle in ball screens, and sprint him off handoffs. His versatility makes him tough to guard.
Despite that, the Philly offense helps make him more predictable. When he’s in the left offensive corner, for example, there’s a high likelihood he’ll sprint off a down screen into a dribble handoff, coming hard to his right hand for a pull-up or rim attack:
Conversely, if Harris is on the right elbow, it usually signifies a flare screen to get to the right wing for a shot, isolation, or a drop-down post. Harris loves the left block since he can finish middle with his right hand, and is fortunate to have great screeners as bigs who spring him open:
There are other frequent calls based on where Harris stands. If he’s on the left elbow, he’ll similarly come to his right for a handoff in an action known as Horns Up, or “thumbs up.” If he’s in the right corner, he’ll come off a single down screen for a shot.
That same single down screen is used frequently for Richardson, a smooth shooter going to his right and one of the auxiliary options who gets open due to all the attention paid to Embiid and Harris:
A set-based team allows for a great deal of coach control. But in a best-of-seven series, the tells become easier, the calls get stolen, and the tendencies get jumped. Advantage: Celtics.
Matchups and Other Thoughts
The Sixers are a pretty big team, starting two post players and nobody under 6’5. With Boston’s length and similar physical profiles on the wings, matchups don’t mean the world in this series. The Celtics will likely switch between assignments on the same possession.
The one question worth investigating is who Kemba Walker guards? I’ll go on record and support him guarding Richardson, not Milton. In a ‘pick your poison’ mentality, I’d rather try to turn Richardson into a scorer and relegate Harris or Embiid to auxiliary duty than simply hide Kemba’s lack of size on a shooter. Daring Richardson to take the bait and see if he will attempt to post-up Walker would screw up their weak-side spacing and allow for emergency help.
Beyond that, Milton spends a ton of time in the corners. If Walker is guarding him, he’s roaming the baseline and in prime help responsibilities, where he’ll either risk foul trouble, be asked to take charges, or be the first to rotate and help on Embiid post-ups. I’d feel more comfortable, for his health and for impact purposes, having Gordon Hayward in that spot to provide more length at the rim and better rebounding to start the break.
Theis and Embiid are bound to guard each other, and Jaylen has done a solid job on Horford in the past. When the Sixers go smaller and only play one of their twin towers, the matchups become more natural in the Celtics’ favor.
Both teams are still working through their rotations heading into the playoffs, but guarding the Sixers bench is simple: don’t let them get hot from deep. Few of their role players are strong off the bounce. The tighter the Celtics’ second unit is to running them off the line, the less likely it is the Sixers bounce them in the first round.