It pits two of the hottest teams in basketball that are clumped together in the standings and, quite simply, don’t like each other very much. Both rosters are retooled, and the intensity often seems to go up a notch when they get together. There’s only one thing missing: James Harden.
The newly acquired superstar – who perhaps has more of a say in how this season shakes out than anyone else in the league – is sidelined through the All-Star break with a hamstring injury. Maybe it really was bothering him all along. Who knows?
What we do know is that the matchup is an intriguing one whether he’s playing or not. Here’s a closer look at how these teams match up – both leading into tonight’s 7:30 pm EST tilt and potentially in the playoffs with full rosters.
James Harden wearing Sixers practice gear: still very, very good at basketball ✅ pic.twitter.com/Oh5iYdPmQt— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) February 14, 2022
How the Celtics have the edge with Harden out
Despite all their offensive talent, the 76ers are 21st in the NBA at 107.6 points per game as of Monday. They average the 23rd most assists (23.2) and are 28th in 3-pointers made (10.9).
Joel Embiid is having an MVP-caliber season, and Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey have been explosive as well, but the 76ers’ offensive production dips after that. They can be one-dimensional at times, but oftentimes that one dimension is more than enough,
With Marcus Smart, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams on the court, the Celtics have the ability to switch just about everything. Of course when Smart or White gets stuck on Embiid in the paint, they’re objectively at a disadvantage, but don’t tell that to them.
Celtics’ opponents have the lowest shooting percentage in the NBA on shots from 10-to-14 feet (38.1), third-lowest shooting on shots from five-to-nine feet (37) and sixth-lowest on shots from less than five feet (61.7).
That’s where Embiid does most of his damage, so if the Celtics can fly to the ball, disrupt Embiid enough to force him to pass and make shooters such as Danny Green, Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz beat them, they’ll have a great shot. Not having Seth Curry for games like this is a major blow for the 76ers and hurts their depth considerably.
Embiid has led them in scoring in 30 of the last 33 games, so if the Celtics can keep him relatively in check, they should find themselves in the game. Of course, doing so is far easier said than done.
How the 76ers still have the edge with Harden out
While Harden and Embiid is extremely enticing on paper, it remains to be seen how it will work in reality. On the flip side, Embiid has proven all season that he’s more than capable as the only superstar on the court.
The offense runs through him, and Doc Rivers finds creative ways to get him the ball in isolation situations. When the Celtics help, Embiid – who’s averaging by far a career-best 4.5 assists – is a capable and willing passer who makes his teammates better now more than ever before. He’s not quite Nikola Jokic as a passer, but his vision is totally different than it was a few years back.
Williams has the best chance of slowing Embiid down, but it’s an unenviable task and will require outside help. While Williams is averaging just 2.1 fouls in 30 minutes, the Celtics will ask a lot of him in his toughest assignment of the year. Al Horford and Daniel Theis (if he plays) will certainly help, but if Embiid has his way, it could be a long night for the Celtics.
Three other factors that benefit the 76ers: 1) They’re turning the ball over the second-fewest times per game in the NBA at 12.5 against a team that prides itself on forcing turnovers. 2) Matisse Thybulle has as good a chance as anyone in the NBA to slow Jayson Tatum down. 3) Maxey is shooting 50.7 percent from the floor in his last 10 games and has taken his game to the next level.
Joel Embiid is the first Sixers player with a 40-point triple-double since Wilt Chamberlain in 1968 pic.twitter.com/kxt1TOryHL— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) February 13, 2022
How the Celtics can stop the 76ers even when Harden is back
There’s certainly a chance the Harden Era will be a disaster, but there’s also a chance it will be incredibly successful. If it works, it obviously makes the Celtics’ path to The Finals far more difficult. Having said that, they appear to have a better chance than most based on their personnel.
White and Smart can pester Harden and get in his face, Tatum and Brown can use their length to bother him, and Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Horford and Theis have a better chance than most in their position to stay in front of him.
The moves the Celtics made benefit them in this specific matchup. White and Theis are far more valuable than Josh Richardson, Dennis Schroder and Romeo Langford when it comes to stopping Harden and Embiid because of their active hands and communication on defense. The Celtics’ versatility and length should go a long way.
Celtics:— StatMuse (@statmuse) February 13, 2022
— 8 straight wins
— 7-0 since Jaylen tweeted "the energy is about to shift"
— 6th in the East
— 12-1 in the last 13 games with Smart
— 2nd in defensive rating this season
— 1st in NetRtg and DRtg in 2022
Hottest team right now. pic.twitter.com/LB656aUMrX
How Harden and Embiid together may terrorize Boston (and everyone)
If this works – again, big if – it’s arguably the best duo in the NBA on paper. It’s really a perfect pairing.
If the Celtics worry about Harden, he’ll find Embiid or shooters. If they worry about Embiid, he’ll find Harden or shooters. It’s the definition of a pick your poison situation.
Boston has the size and the defensive prowess to slow them down in spurts, but it may be difficult to stop such an offensive juggernaut entirely if it all comes together as planned. In the meantime, Tuesday will provide a glimpse into what the matchup looks like without the biggest X-factor of all. Beard or no Beard, this 76ers team is dangerous, and the Celtics may need to reach a new level to extend their winning streak to nine.