Longtime division rivals, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, face off once again in the playoffs. The NBA record for the most playoff series between two franchises is held by the these two teams. Going back to 1953 when the 76ers were known as the Syracuse Nationals, they have met in the postseason 20 times. The Celtics have a 13-7 lead, including 9-4 since the 76ers moved to Philadelphia in 1963.
They last met two years ago when the Celtics won the series 4-1. Only five Celtics remain who took part in that series in 2018 – Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye. Gordon Hayward was on the team but was on the injured list. The Sixers will have just two players from that 2017-18 team going against the Celtics – Joel Embiid and Furkan Korkmaz. Ben Simmons was on that team but is out with a knee injury. Al Horford was a Celtic for that series but this time around, he is on the 76ers.
The Celtics lost the regular-season series to the 76ers this year for the first time since the 2013-14 season. The Sixers won 3 games to 1. The 76ers won 107-93 in Philadelphia on opening night. They also won 115-109 in Boston on December 12. They won again in Philly 109-98 on January 9. The Celtics got their only win 116-95 on February 1 in Boston.
Inside the Bubble, the Celtics went 5-3 in the seeding games and won 4 straight before losing to the Wizards 96-90 in their final game. The Celtics top 6 players sat that one out while the Wizards played their normal rotation. The Sixers went 4-4 in the seeding games and lost 3 straight before beating the Rockets 134-96 in their final games. The Rockets were without Russell Westbrook and both teams kept their starters under 30 minutes.
The Sixers had benched Al Horford and started Shake Milton when there appeared to be problems with having both Horford and Simmons on the court at the same time. When Simmons was injured, Horford was reinstated as a starter and Milton remained in the starting lineup as the point guard.
Brett Brown has stated that he is considering starting Matisse Thybulle for his defensive ability, Horford would likely be the odd man out if Thybulle starts since the Sixers have played better when Horford and Embiid are not on the court at the same time. I have posted the normal starters below but that may change if Brown does decide to start Thybulle.
Romeo Langford tore ligaments in his wrist in the Celtics final seeding game. He will eventually need surgery but they are in the process of determining if he will be able to play through it in these playoffs. He was able to practice with the team on Sunday and said that his wrist felt better. But, being able to practice and being ready to play in a playoff game are not the same thing. He is listed as questionable for this game.
Ben Simmons left the bubble to have surgery on his knee and will be out for the playoffs. Joel Embiid had ankle soreness and also a hand injury over the Sixers last 2 games but played through them and should be healthy entering the playoffs. Glenn Robinson III missed their final 2 seeding games with a hip injury, which has now been determined to be an oblique strain and is out for this game. He will be re-evaluated in 7-10 days.
Probable Celtics Starters
Robert Williams III
Romeo Langford (wrist) questionable
Ben Simmons (knee) out
Glenn Robinson III (oblique) out
Daniel Theis vs Joel Embiid
Embiid is averaging 23.2 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.3 blocks per game. He is shooting 47.7% from the field and 33.1% from beyond the arc. It will likely be center by committee for the Celtics to try to slow Embiid down. Theis can stay with him if he stays outside, but if he tries to bull his way to the basket every time, we may see more of Enes Kanter, who is strong enough to stand his ground to a charging Embiid. We may also see Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeleye on him if all else fails along with some double teams. Slowing down Embiid will be key to beating the Sixers.
Gordon Hayward vs Tobias Harris
This is a key matchup, not only because Harris is averaging 19.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 3.1 assists and shooting 47.0% from the field and 36.4% from beyond the arc, but because Gordon Hayward has been playing very well and hopefully will be able to make Harris work hard throughout the game. Hayward will need to play strong on both ends of the court to limit Harris’ effectiveness on defense and to be a playmaker and scorer on offense since Kemba has been bothered by Philly’s size in the games he played against them this season.
Jayson Tatum vs Al Horford
Jayson Tatum has played very well in the bubble after his first game where he shot 2-18. If any opponent knows Tatum well, it is Al Horford who played along side him in Boston for several years. In previous meetings, Ben Simmons was tasked with guarding Tatum and held him to 31.3% shooting when defending him. With Simmons gone, Horford becomes more important both to guard Tatum and to pick up the slack in the offense. Has Horford lost a step or will we see Playoff Al once again in this series?
Marcus Smart vs Matisse Thybulle
The 76ers took Thybulle with the Celtics’ 20th pick this season in exchange for the 24th and 33rd picks that became Grant Williams and Carsen Edwards. Thybulle is averaging 4.7 points, 1.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game. He can score when put in that position, though, as he put up 36 points vs Houston in the final seeding game. Brett Brown has said that he will be used a lot in this series for his defense to make up for the loss of Simmons’ defense. Smart is the Celtics’ defensive counterpart. He is averaging 12.9 points, 3.8 rebounds 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals. This will be a matchup of whose defense is stronger.
Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense is always the key to winning every game. Both teams play tough defense, although one of the key defenders for the Sixers, Ben Simmons, will miss the playoffs. The Celtics are 4th in the league with a defensive rating of 106.5 while the Sixers are not far behind at 8th with a defensive rating of 108.4. It will be very important for the Celtics to play tough team defense and keep the Sixers from finding any rhythm on offense. The Celtics must match or exceed the Sixers effort and intensity on defense.
Rebound - With the size of the Sixers front line and starters, the Celtics are going to have to work hard in order to get rebounds. They need to keep the Sixers from getting second chance points around the basket and they need to give themselves extra possessions by rebounding on the offensive end. The Sixers out-rebounded the Celtics 202-154 in their 4 regular season games. If the Celtics want to win this one, it is crucial that they go all out to crash the boards.
Move the Ball - The Celtics ball movement was very good as they won the 4 straight games before the loss in their final game. When they move the ball and move without the ball they get good shots and good things happen. When they over dribble and play hero ball, it usually doesn’t end well. They need to move without the ball to get open and they need to move the ball to find the open man and the best shot. Ball movement will be very important to beat the Sixers defense.
Effort and Focus- We will need to see 100% effort from every player and they need to stay focused if they want to get a win in this game. They need to come out and play hard from the start and not let up until the final buzzer. They need to stay focused on playing Celtics basketball and on playing defense. The Sixers are a tough team and they have a lot of size. It will take a big effort on the part of each Celtic to get a win in this one.
Bench Play - At times this season, the bench has been the Celtics weak point. Often the starters would build a lead only to have it disappear when the second unit came in. The Celtics’ reserves need to be consistent and they need to defend and hit their shots. The Sixers have some good players coming off the bench including Alec Burks, who had 37 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists against the Rockets. Over his last 4 games he is averaging 20.3 points and shooting 45% from beyond the arc. Other reserves are good 3 point shooters including Korkmaz (40.2%) and Scott (36.7%). The Celtics need their reserves to come in and play hard and well on both ends of the court.
Neutral Site - The Sixers were great at home this season but not so much on the road. They were 30-4 at home and just 12-26 on the road. The Celtics were 26-10 at home and 22-14 on the road and so were more consistent between home and road. How will both teams play in the playoffs since they are at a neutral site with no home court advantage for either team?
Momentum - The Celtics lost the first 3 games between these two teams but won the final one. The Sixers won their last game in a 38 point blow out over the Rockets with their starting point guard out, while the Celtics lost theirs with their top 6 players sitting out. Does either team have momentum going into the playoffs? It’s hard to tell. The Sixers won the series, but the Celtics won the final regular season meeting. The Celtics won 4 in a row before their final loss going into the playoffs but the Sixers lost 3 in a row before that final blow out.
Coaching - Brad Stevens and Brett Brown were both hired in the same year. Brad Stevens just got an extension from the Celtics while there are rumors that Brett Brown is on the hot seat. Coaching in the playoffs is like a game of chess. Which coach will make the right moves and correctly counter the moves of his counterpart?
Officiating - Officiating is always an x-factor. Every crew calls the game a little bit differently. Some call it tight. Some let the teams play. Some refs have an agenda and others call it fair. The Celtics have to adjust to the way they are calling the game and not let the calls that go against them take away their focus on playing the right way. Hopefully the officials will call it fair and let them play.