The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers will meet in an Eastern Conference semifinals series. The two historic rivals last met in the playoffs during the 2020 playoffs in the bubble. The Celtics swept that series. The series schedule is as follows:
· Game 1 – Monday May 1 at Boston – 7:30 PM ET - TNT
· Game 2 – Wednesday May 3 at Boston – 8:00 PM ET - TNT
· Game 3 – Friday May 5 at Philadelphia – 7:30 PM ET - ESPN
· Game 4 – Sunday May 7 at Philadelphia – 3:30 PM ET - ESPN
· Game 5* – Tuesday May 9 at Boston – Time/TV TBD - *if necessary
· Game 6* – Thursday May 11 at Philadelphia – Time/TV TBD - *if necessary
· Game 7* – Sunday May 14 at Boston – Time/TV TBD - *if necessary
During the regular season the teams met four times, with Boston winning the season series 3-1.
· Boston 126 – Philadelphia 117
· Boston 106 – Philadelphia 99
· Boston 110 – Philadelphia 107
· Philadelphia 103 – Boston 101
The first matchup was an opening night blowout by the Celtics over the Sixers. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown each scored 35 points, while Malcolm Brogdon and Grant Williams combined for 31 off Boston’s bench. James Harden scored 35 points, while Joel Embiid added 26 points and 15 rebounds.
In the second game, the Celtics were missing both Al Horford and Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown had poor shooting nights. Boston was carried by 19 points apiece for Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White, while Blake Griffin and Grant Williams combined for 30 points as fill-in starters. Joel Embiid scored 28, and James Harden 26 points and 11 assists.
The third matchup saw Jayson Tatum hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning three-pointer, as Joel Embiid’s 70-footer was just late, despite going in. The Celtics had six players in double-figures in points and shot 50% for the game. Embiid was terrific with 41 points and 12 rebounds. James Harden added 21 points, while P.J. Tucker grabbed 16 rebounds.
The final matchup saw Boston play without Jaylen Brown and Rob Williams. Joel Embiid ran wild with 52 points and 13 rebounds. James Harden added 20 points 10 assists. The Celtics were led by 26 points from Derrick White, while Jayson Tatum added 19 points despite an off-shooting night.
Boston comes in relatively healthy. Several Celtics are dealing with bumps bruises, but they should all be available to play.
The big injury to watch is Joel Embiid. Embiid is recovering a sprained LCL in his right knee. Because Embiid didn’t play in Game 4 of the Sixers first-round sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, he’ll have had 11 days off before Game 1. Recovery time from a sprained LCL varies, and the 76ers haven’t said what grade of sprain Embiid is dealing with. At the very least, Embiid is likely to be somewhat limited at the start of the series, if not out entirely. Beyond that, this will be a game-to-game thing to monitor, until Embiid shows he’s at or near full health.
Marcus Smart and Derrick White vs James Harden and Tyrese Maxey
We’ll start this by saying that we feel pretty confident that both Derrick White and James Harden will be solid in this series, given some history, including this season. Marcus Smart and Tyrese Maxey are a bit less of a solid projection, again given some recent history.
White was effective against Philadelphia in a number of different ways. He was good as a spot-up shooter and on his pullup threes. White also excelled in transition (Philadelphia’s awful transition defense is going to be a running theme), where he pushed pace for layups and floaters at will. On defense, White guarded a little bit of everyone, but he was the primary defender against Tyrese Maxey, who he helped keep in check.
Harden did what he does to everyone against Boston. He got inside for layups or drew free throws. He hit threes at a solid rate (worth noting: Harden was better on spot-ups than step-backs) and he picked the Celtics apart in a couple of games with his passing. On defense, Harden spent as much time floating, as he did guarding any single Celtic. For the most part, Smart was Harden’s matchup, but he was sort of Philadelphia’s designated helper against Boston’s wings.
Flipping to the other starters, the Celtics need Marcus Smart to be better than he was in the regular season matchups. He really struggled to hit outside shots. Philadelphia is content to let him be the shooter, and they regularly bend their defense away from Smart when he’s handling the ball. Smart will be the primary defender on Harden, as he’s better served to deal with Harden’s physicality than Maxey’s quickness. But he’ll see plenty of time on Maxey, as well as every Sixer, when Boston is switching everything.
Maxey was terrible against Boston this season. The Celtics were content to let him take jumpers, while loading up against Harden and Joel Embiid. White’s size and ability to block and contest shots also seemed to bother Maxey. On defense, Maxey was someone that Boston tried to find to attack for baskets in the halfcourt.
Ultimately, this one will come down to who makes shots. All four players can go through pretty wild swings as three-point shooters. Whoever makes more shots will have a big advantage here.
Advantage: Even. Philadelphia has the best player of the group in James Harden, but both Derrick White and Marcus Smart have been better than Tyrese Maxey in this particular matchup, and by a pretty wide margin. All of that said, Maxey was excellent in the first-round, while Harden had some struggles.
Harden’s inability to get himself to the line or finish on drives, so far in the playoffs, is concerning for Philadelphia. That put a lot of pressure on Maxey to be the second scoring option, especially with on-ball creation. He was up to that task, but he didn’t draw the caliber of defenders that he will from Boston.
White and Smart were both excellent against the Hawks. Both shot it well and made plays inside the arc to score or pick out teammates. Look for both players, and Malcolm Brogdon off the bench, to push the ball. Whether that’s to get all the way to rim themselves, to kick to a shooter or find a teammate at the basket, Boston is going to want to run a lot in this series.
Again, if Smart and White are making shots, the Celtics will win this matchup, because they won’t give back nearly as many points on the other end of the floor. But if they aren’t, or if Harden is able to finish inside or get to the line with regularity, this will become a potential tipping point.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown vs P.J. Tucker and Tobias Harris
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are probably the second- and third-best players in this series. They might be the first- and second-best, pending how hobbled Joel Embiid is.
Tatum tends to draw P.J. Tucker on defense. Going back to last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, that’s been to Boston’s advantage. Tucker has struggled to stay with Tatum off the bounce. Tatum has also been content to get to his spot and to shoot over Tucker. In last season’s playoff matchup, Tatum did a nice job getting Tucker into foul trouble with somewhat regularity as well. That would be key, as Tucker not only starts, but also functions as Embiid’s backup.
Brown has a chance to be a transition monster in this series. Philadelphia doesn’t exactly bust back on defense. Boston’s best transition players have been Brown and Derrick White this season, and in the playoffs. In the halfcourt, Brown is too quick for most anyone that Philadelphia puts on him. He did struggle from three in the regular season matchups, but Brown got to the rim or to his midrange pullup almost whenever he wanted.
Both Tatum and Brown will toggle who they are guarding, as well as picking up Harden at times. When Boston is in a double-big lineup, look for Brown to guard James Harden, while Tatum will stick with Harris, with Rob Williams or Al Horford floating off Tucker.
Harris needs to be the guy he was in the first-round sweep of the Nets. He was scoring with regularity and making an impact. Against Boston, Harris’ shooting numbers were fine, but he wasn’t aggressive enough. When guarded by Jaylen Brown, Harris can do a good job of getting to the mid-post area for his turnaround. That’s something that Atlanta was able to do with their forwards. On defense, Harris has to be better than he was in the regular season against Boston. Too often, he was caught flatfooted and Celtics ballhandlers beat him off the dribble.
Tucker is the guy the Celtics will shade help off of, if they bring extra size against Joel Embiid. That’s usually Tatum, or a big when the Celtics are in a double-big lineup. That means Tucker has to make shots, which he did against Boston in the regular season. But it also means Tucker has to take shots, which he didn’t do much of against Boston in the regular season. On defense, Tucker is better served in lineups when the Celtics play two bigs, as he’s more solid as an interior defender than out on the perimeter.
Advantage: Boston. This is Boston’s single biggest advantage in the series. Philadelphia doesn’t have good answers for guarding Tatum or Brown, unless Tucker is allowed to be overly physical.
This matchup, more than any other, is where the Celtics can win the series. Tatum and Brown can’t settle for too many three-pointers, unless they’ve got it going. Getting into the midrange area, against Joel Embiid in drop coverage or all the way to the rim when Embiid is sitting, is huge for Boston.
On the other end, Tatum and Brown need to be disciplined on defense. They can’t overhelp off Tucker, or he can make them pay. And Harris is someone they’ll want to get into on defense. But those two are rarely the focal points of the 76ers offense, so Tatum and Brown will have opportunities to help and double off them.
Al Horford vs Joel Embiid
(Note: We’re going to approach this as if Joel Embiid will be healthy enough to play and will be a good version of himself. If that’s not the case, then this is a massive advantage for Boston. Philadelphia’s backup options aren’t making up that big of a difference.)
Embiid is the best player in this series. He’s nearly unstoppable on offense when he’s making jumpers. On defense, he can wreck any chances you have around the rim. He’s also greatly improved as a passer against double-teams.
The Celtics approach to guarding Embiid in the past has been to try and make him a jump-shooter. If he hits a bunch of jumpers, Boston tips their cap and moves on. Another part of that strategy is that it has often tired Embiid out, and he doesn’t have the legs left deep into the fourth quarter.
On defense, the Celtics don’t shy away from making Embiid work. That’s part of their strategy to tire him out, and to occasionally get him in foul trouble. Whether it’s a guard or a wing, look for a heavy dose of Boston going at Embiid in pick-and-roll actions.
When Embiid is in drop coverage, which is most of the time, Boston will get to pullup shots. Those can be threes, but midrange shots are often there too, because Embiid tends to drop deep. Picking out the right shot, will be a key for the Celtics.
When Embiid is up at the level of the ball, whether hedging (more often) or switching (less often), Boston will make Al Horford a big part of the offense. They like to get Horford shots as he spots up or pops off screens. Horford is also adept at slipping the screen and getting into the paint to make a play for himself or to find a shooter as Philadelphia rotates.
Over the last two months, the Celtics have also experimented with using Horford as a movement shooter. They’ll set inverted pin-down screens for Horford to get catch-and-shoot looks. That seems to have been with these types of matchups in mind. If Horford is making shots, and forcing Embiid to play in space, then this matchup becomes slightly closer.
On defense, Horford will do everything he can to frustrate Embiid. He’ll play up on him one play and dropped off on the next. Horford will swipe at the ball one time, then play straight up on the next play. Horford is also very good at shading Embiid to the Celtics designated helpers.
Advantage: Philadelphia. As much as Al Horford and Boston have defended Joel Embiid better than anyone, there is no world where they have the advantage here. Embiid is that good.
If Embiid can’t play, or he’s significantly impacted by the sprained right knee, then this becomes a mess for the 76ers. For them to have a chance in this series, Philadelphia has to have a dominant Embiid. Not a good Embiid. Not a great Embiid. A completely dominant Embiid. And even then, as we’ve seen a lot over the years, it might not be enough.
Malcolm Brogdon, Rob Williams, Grant Williams, Sam Hauser vs De’Anthony Melton, George Niang, Paul Reed, Jalen McDaniels, Shake Milton
Boston’s depth is better than Philadelphia’s, almost man for man. Malcolm Brogdon is the best player of this group, even if De’Anthony Melton has had an outstanding season. Rob Williams is more impactful than anyone the Sixers can bring in behind Joel Embiid. And Grant Williams and Sam Hauser should at least match whatever production Georges Niang and Jalen McDaniels bring to the floor.
Brogdon is going to play a lot in this series. His pullup shooting ability against Embiid in drop coverage is huge. Look for that to be a regular weapon for the Celtics. Brogdon will also be asked to guard James Harden quite a bit, and his physical defensive style is a nice matchup to the force Harden plays with.
Rob Williams assignment here is simple: match Paul Reed’s energy and attack the rim on both ends of the floor. Whether that be for dunks on offense or blocks and rebounds on defense, that’s what Williams has to do. Reed is going to play hard and get after it on the glass. The Celtics have to account for him whenever a shot goes up, or it will be a repeat of Onyeka Okongwu causing issues on for Boston on the boards.
Grant Williams and Georges Niang are kind of carbon copies of each other, at least on offense. Both are mostly spot-up shooters and good ball-movers, who will occasionally find themselves finishing around the rim. On defense, Grant Williams’ ability to guard Embiid, and to make him work, will be big. Especially if he’s paired with Rob Williams, which allows Rob to roam and help around the rim.
Hauser and McDaniels are kind of wild-cards. If Hauser is hitting shots, he’ll be a big part of the series. If he’s not, he’ll probably lose playing time to others. McDaniels size and quickness combo might be needed against Boston’s wings on defense, but he’ll also need to make shots to stay on the floor.
There are others who could factor in here. If Embiid is overpowering the Celtics bigs and forcing fouls, Blake Griffin, Luke Kornet and Mike Muscala could all see minutes. On the Sixers side, if Embiid can’t go or is very limited, Montrezl Harrell and possibly Dewayne Dedmon could find themselves with bigger than expected roles. Shake Milton has also been in and out of the rotation too, so that’s something to keep an eye on.
Advantage: Boston. Brogdon is the best player of this group. Boston’s collection of backup bigs is better than Philadelphia’s, even if Paul Reed could cause the Celtics some issues.
The major thing here is that the Celtics have to win non-Embiid minutes. And they have to win them in a major way. That’s arguably one of the biggest keys to who will win this series.
Joe Mazzulla vs Doc Rivers
Former Celtics coach against current Celtics coach. It’s a matchup where fans of both sides often feel at a disadvantage. But it’s never really as bad as it’s made out to be either.
Mazzulla was both good and bad in his first playoff series leading Boston. He called out his own failures at the end of the Game 5 collapse, and he made some odd rotation decisions, especially with not playing Grant Williams much. But Mazzulla did get Williams in for key minutes in Game 6, and he changed up matchups and coverages against the Hawks too. He also directed some different stuff on offense, including putting Marcus Smart in the middle of the floor late in close games, where he could act as the playmaker when Jayson Tatum was double-teamed.
Rivers is what he is. He runs a fairly rigid rotation, and he goes to all-reserve, or almost all-reserve lineups, far more than anyone is comfortable. But there’s nothing Rivers hasn’t seen at this point of his coaching career. He’ll have his team prepared and he gets them to play hard.
Advantage: Philadelphia. It’s hard to pick against the guy who has won a championship and 108 playoffs games vs the guy who has won one series.
But it’s not like Doc Rivers is going to run circles around Joe Mazzulla. Mazzulla has the better options to go to, and his roster is far more versatile. Mazzulla will probably have to make different adjustments throughout the series, whereas Rivers will run what he runs and hope his team executes at a high enough level.
Celtics in six games.
This is where Joel Embiid’s status comes into play. If Embiid is out or hobbled, the 76ers don’t have a chance at beating the Celtics. They don’t have the depth, nor the matchup advantages elsewhere to overcome missing the likely MVP.
But here’s the thing…the Celtics are a better team than the Sixers by a decent margin even if Embiid does play. It took a monster Embiid performance for Philadelphia to escape with a win against a shorthanded Celtics team. Prior playoff history between the two teams is also a factor here. This is a matchup the Celtics have owned for years now.
That said, Boston can be inconsistent. Their focus still tends to wane when they get too comfortable. Late-game execution has improved, but is still a pretty big work in progress. If shots aren’t falling, and they probably won’t in a game or two of this series, the defense tends to slip.
One major advantage for the Celtics should be in transition. The Sixers improved their transition defense in the first-round just slightly, but that basically went from atrocious to simply bad. If the guys in green run, off turnovers, misses and makes, they should find plenty of scoring opportunities.
If the Celtics play up to their potential, and they should be more focused against a good 76ers team then they were against an overmatched Hawks team, they should win these games. If Embiid misses games, or is ineffective, Boston should really roll in this series. This prediction was a lot closer to “Celtics in five games” than it was “Celtics in six games”. But Boston’s inconsistency, and respect for Embiid and James Harden, necessitated the extra game.