The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers will meet in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs in an Eastern Conference series. The 2020 NBA Playoffs will be like no other, as all the games will be played at a neutral site at Walt Disney World. The series schedule is as follows:
· Game 1 – Monday 8/17 – 6:30 PM ET - ESPN
· Game 2 – Wednesday 8/19 – 6:30 PM ET - TNT
· Game 3 – Friday 8/21 – 6:30 PM ET - TNT
· Game 4 – Sunday 8/23 – 1:00 PM ET - ABC
· Game 5* – Tuesday 8/25 – TBD - TBD *if necessary
· Game 6* – Thursday 8/27 – TBD - ESPN *if necessary
· Game 7* – Saturday 8/29 – TBD - TNT *if necessary
During the regular season the teams met four times, with Philadelphia winning three of the four matchups:
· Philadelphia 107 – Boston 93
· Philadelphia 115 – Boston 109
· Philadelphia 109 – Boston 98
· Boston 116 – Philadelphia 95
The first contest was the only one where both sides were completely healthy. It was closer than the final score seems, as the Sixers pulled away late. A contributing factor in the loss? The Celtics missed 14 free throws.
In the second game, Boston was without Marcus Smart and Philadelphia played without Al Horford. Joel Embiid dominated with 38 points.
The 76ers played without Joel Embiid in the third matchup and got whatever they wanted offensively. The Celtics offense struggled as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined to shoot 6-of-25 from the field.
The Celtics finally broke through with a blowout victory in the final regular season matchup. Boston played without Kemba Walker, but Brown and Tatum combined for 57 points in the victory.
While Boston enters this playoff series with all 17 of their players healthy and available, Philadelphia is banged up. Ben Simmons is out for the season after suffering a dislocated kneecap. Joel Embiid was recently out with an ankle injury, but appears to be back at full strength. And Al Horford has been dealing with some knee soreness, but will play as well.
Normally, we’d preview a series in Brad Stevens’ parlance of “Ballhandlers, Wings and Bigs”. Because these two teams are so drastically different in lineup style, we’re going to do this one traditionally as “Guards, Forwards and Center”.
Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown vs Shake Milton and Josh Richardson
No matchup has changed more in Boston’s favor from the regular season than in the backcourt. Kemba Walker scored 22.3 points per game on Philly in three games, but shot under 40% from the floor. He also struggled mightily defensively against the Sixers jumbo-sized lineups. Boston put Walker on Josh Richardson, who has a five-to-six-inch height advantage. Richardson was able to use that to basically play Walker to a stalemate.
Jaylen Brown also struggled on offense against the Sixers, in part because he always had to play a key role defensively by guarding a much bigger player. Brown scored just 13.5 points per game over the four contests and shot only 24% from behind the arc.
Now, with Simmons out, the matchups tilt more towards Boston. Walker is perfectly capable of defending Shake Milton without needing a ton of help. Brown will float all over in the Celtics “switch everything” scheme. But it’s on the other end where Boston can make some hay.
In part to conserve Joel Embiid’s energy and fouls, Philadelphia has adopted a drop style of defense. That’s where Walker can feast. Working out of pick-and-roll, Walker should be able to get to the pull-up jumpers he excels at. This is also an area where Boston will use Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum to attack as well.
Brown’s also playing at a different level now than he was during the first three matchups. His confidence is soaring after scoring over 20 points per game on the season. Brown is going to make whoever is defending him work, largely because he’ll do a lot of damage off the dribble. His own emerging pull-up and fallaway game is complementing his driving and spot-up game.
Milton has become a legitimate weapon for Philadelphia as a shooter/scorer. He shot 43% from behind the arc and loves to pull from midrange as well. One thing Milton is not is a playmaker for others. He’s not a traditional point guard like Simmons in terms of running an offense. He looks for his shot more than he looks to pass. That will allow the Celtics to account for him differently than they do Simmons.
Some of the playmaking burden will fall to Richardson, but he’s also more of a scorer than a passer. Richardson is also wildly inconsistent. He might go for 30 points one night and then be invisible the next. It’s also unlikely Richardson will have his size advantage to work with in the new lineup, as he’ll probably rarely draw Walker as a defender. That’s a big difference from the regular season matchups.
Advantage: Boston. Milton and Richardson are good players, but Walker and Brown are great ones. Considering the other matchups are close, or favor Philadelphia, this is one where Boston needs to win and win decisively. Look for Walker to live off his pull-up jumper and for Brown to do damage when he’s defended by a bigger player. That’s how the Celtics will win this matchup.
Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward vs Al Horford and Tobias Harris
This matchup is closer than it might seem, when accounting for both teams’ points of view. In the regular season matchups, Tatum and Hayward struggled to score efficiently. Horford and Harris both played their supporting roles quite well.
Part of the issue with that lens is that three of the four regular season games took place by early-January. Both teams, and both of these sets of players, are in very different places now.
Tatum has ascended to the star level. He’s been incandescent offensively since being named and All-Star. Outside of a rough first game, Tatum has been on fire in the bubble. He’s become one of the most unstoppable offensive players in the game.
Hayward carried over his terrific all-around play from before the hiatus to the bubble. He finished the year averaging 17.5 points, a career-best 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game on 50/38/85 shooting splits. In many ways, Hayward has become Boston’s primary distributor, with the offensive regularly flowing through him to set up Tatum, Brown and Walker.
On the other side, it’s been a trying year for Al Horford. The fit with Joel Embiid was clunky to start and never really got better. That led to Horford being sent to the bench. With Simmons out, Horford is back in the starting lineup. With some better floor spacing provided by Shake Milton, the Sixers offense has looked better this time around. Horford has a little more room to work in the spots where he’s comfortable, while Embiid occupies the paint.
The challenge now comes on the defensive end. Horford’s defense on the perimeter has noticeably slipped. Whether it’s age or knee soreness, he no longer has the quickness to keep opposing ballhandlers in front of him. When Horford is defending a high-usage big man like Giannis Antetokounmpo, it doesn’t show up as much. But having to defend a quick wing like one of Tatum, Hayward or Brown off the bounce all game is going to be a problem.
That problem is exacerbated by Harris not being a very good defender either. He does a nice job in Philadelphia’s scheme of funneling ballhandler to the bigs in the paint, but when isolated on the perimeter, Harris’ deficiencies show up. He’s really a power forward playing small forward. In the playoffs, opponents can build a game plan for the series. Expect Boston’s to heavily feature making Harris defend on the move.
On the other end, Harris can make up for some of that by being an efficient scorer. The key is his jumper. If Harris is knocking down open looks, he’s a different player. That opens him up to score off the dribble when attacking closeouts, especially in the midrange area. He can use his size to get good looks over the Celtics smaller defenders.
This one really comes down to Boston’s perimeter attack against Philadelphia’s interior defense when the Celtics have the ball. When that’s flipped to the Sixers with the ball, it’s about Boston keeping them off the offensive glass. Tatum and Hayward are going to have to show up on the boards, or the Sixers will steal some easy points that way.
Advantage: Boston. Because Tatum has grown into a star and Hayward is again a consistent, reliable player, the Celtics have the advantage. There shouldn’t be a single offensive trip where Boston can’t attack Horford, Harris or both off the dribble. Without Ben Simmons, this matchup flips to Boston’s side.
Daniel Theis vs Joel Embiid
This is where Philadelphia has to dominate by a large margin if they’re going to win the series. And even that might not be enough.
Joel Embiid is one of the best centers in basketball, and he’s clearly got an advantage against anyone Boston will throw at him. This could be a series where Embiid will have to average 45 points and 20 rebounds a game for the Sixers to win.
In three regular season matchups with the Celtics this season, Embiid averaged 21.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and two blocks per game. The counting stats are good. What’s not good is that Embiid shot only 39.1% from the floor and missed eight of 11 three-point attempts in those three games.
Boston has defended Embiid as well as any team has over the years. They do so by throwing varied looks at him. In this series, Daniel Theis will get first crack at Embiid. As a first-time starter, Theis turned in the best season of his career. The Celtics are going to need a lot from him in this series to help slow down Embiid.
When Theis is on offense, conventional thought is that he’ll stay out around the perimeter to pull Embiid from the lane. While Theis is likely to do plenty of that, he’ll also be involved in and around the paint as well. One of the Celtics best weapons has been the “Theis seal”, where Theis walls off the opposing shot-blocker to open up driving lanes for his teammates. Boston won’t sacrifice that just to pull Embiid away from the rim.
On defense, Theis is going to have his hands full. The Celtics will send some doubles at Embiid when he’s on the block and force him to give the ball up, but Theis will get him straight up plenty too. The key for Theis is to avoid fouls. This is easier said than done, as Theis seems to draw calls like he’s a magnet for them.
Advantage: Philadelphia. There is no other way to spin this one. Embiid is one of the best and Theis is a very good role player. The key is to make Embiid work. It’s the old adage of “You can’t stop him; you can only hope to contain him”. In addition, Boston’s focus may shift to letting Embiid getting his while locking down everyone else.
One thing to watch: Embiid tends to wear out, especially in games where he’s heavily involved early. An easy to envision scenario is Embiid has 40 points at the end of the third quarter and then goes 2-for-10 from the floor with lazy jumpers in the fourth due to tired legs.
Marcus Smart, Enes Kanter, Brad Wanamaker, Robert Williams vs Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Mike Scott, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III
In general, Brad Stevens prefers to use a nine-man rotation in the playoffs. Marcus Smart and Brad Wanamaker are locks to play off the bench. Enes Kanter and Robert Williams will both play plenty because of Joel Embiid being on the other side. Semi Ojeleye and Grant Williams might see some situational run, but it’s likely to be the first four for Boston who get the most time.
Philadelphia’s bench group is a little bit harder to figure out. Furkan Korkmaz will be in there because of his shooting. Matisse Thybulle will play a lot because he’s the 76ers best perimeter defender with Ben Simmons out. Mike Scott is the only big who is guaranteed to see some run. After that, it’s more of a question. If Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III are healthy, they’ll get some time to provide offense off the pine. The problem is that both are continually battling bumps and bruises that have kept them out at times.
The names are bigger off the Sixers bench, but the Celtics players know what their role are. Smart is easily the best player of this entire group and his presence often helps turns games in Boston’s favor.
Kanter and Williams are drastically different players, but they’ll be part of the three-man rotation against Embiid. While, he’s generally a poor defender, Kanter has played well against Embiid in the post. And Williams is really coming along rapidly and had several good moments during the restart. Look for Stevens to mix and match with these two and Daniel Theis to keep Embiid on his toes.
Don’t count out Wanamaker for having an impact. He’s tough and has good size against the 76ers guards. Nothing will be flashy, but Wanamaker will give Boston good minutes off the bench. And Wanamaker is a Philly product, who would love to shine against his hometown team.
On the Sixers side, Korkmaz can heat up and score in bunches from the outside. But he’ll often give back just as many on the other end. Whenever he’s in the game, he’s the attack-point for the Celtics offense.
Thybulle has the opposite issue. While Brett Brown will want him on the floor for his defense, the Celtics simply won’t guard him on offense. If Thybulle can’t make shots, he might get played off the court.
Mike Scott can score, but Boston will attack him on defense, as well. And Burks and Robinson are both solid, but it’s unlikely they’ll be major difference makers in the series.
Advantage: Boston. If the Celtics activate a bigger body like Vincent Poirier, they have lots of guys to throw at Embiid. The key is the Boston knows what to expect from their reserves each game. When all you need is for your bench to keep things moving in a playoff series, you can count on the Celtics more than the 76ers.
Brad Stevens vs Brett Brown
This one could be boiled down to as simple as Brad Stevens just got an extension and Brett Brown is probably on his way out if the Sixers fall anything short of an NBA Finals run. That’s a little unfair, but it’s also not that far off.
Stevens coached through yet another season where he rarely had his entire roster together at the same time. Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Kemba Walker all missed time due to injuries throughout the season. Yet, Boston just kept plugging in the next man up and winning games.
Stevens also rebuilt his offensive system and hierarchy after the Celtics swapped out Kyrie Irving for Walker. Boston runs some different actions that suit Walker, while also recognizing that the team will go as far as Brown and Jayson Tatum take them. Stevens was able to get that buy-in from his veterans, and that’s made the difference in the upside of this season’s Celtics vs last season’s version.
Brown has done a commendable job, as Philadelphia has continually retooled the roster each season. He’s also worked around injuries to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. And, of course, Brown has captained this ship from “The Process” years to the playoff team they are now.
Unfortunately, as much as personnel changes, Brown doesn’t really change his system all that much. Embiid and Al Horford were a terrible fit up front, but Brown stuck with it longer than he should have. As the restart kicked off, Brown moved Simmons off the ball and Horford to the bench. We didn’t really see enough of that to know if it would work or not. Philadelphia also runs little pick-and-roll and can sometimes look like a 1990’s offense that begs for double-teams to open up shooters.
Advantage: Boston. Stevens has now been there, done that in the first round of the playoffs. He’s managed Kemba Walker through his knee issues to have him full-go for the start of the postseason. And Stevens knows exactly who his rotation players are and what to expect from them. Brett Brown is still figuring that out, due to no fault of his own. But that, combined with Stevens’ history of being willing to adjust on the fly, gives the Celtics the advantage.
Celtics in five games. Joel Embiid is probably going to run wild, but that’s not going to be enough for the 76ers to pull off the upset. Boston’s depth and versatility on offense is going to be too much for Philadelphia. Maybe Al Horford can do some damage on the smaller Celtics inside. But without Ben Simmons, Horford is going to be tested by having to guard one of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward. Where Boston can really do damage is with Kemba Walker as a scorer off the dribble. Unless Philadelphia has a very unexpected wrinkle, they don’t really have a great answer for Walker’s pull-up game. As lopsided as the regular season series was in terms of wins and losses, expect a reverse of that in the first round of the playoffs.