Who are the biggest X-factors for both teams (outside of Tatum, Brown, Embiid, Harden)?
This series to me is all about Tyrese Maxey. We saw in the Atlanta series that the Celtics can be vulnerable to PnR and outside of Harden, Philly doesn’t have a ton of playmakers at the guard position from those sets. Maxey looked great against Brooklyn, he’s going to have to take another leap of Philly wants to win the series. Harden clearly has some issues getting lift around the hoop, so the onus is going to fall on Maxey down the stretch of the series to be that creator in the PnR and try to attack mismatches.
Tobias Harris is coming off a series where he shot 57.1% from three-point land. If he does that again, it will be very annoying for the Celtics to deal with. Paul Reed also played well when Joel Embiid went down, averaging 4.3 offensive rebounds per game. With Boston’s struggles on the glass, watch out for him. As for the Celtics, look to Al Horford. He’s going to have a huge job on both ends, guarding Embiid and beating the 76ers from behind the arc. Horford holds the keys for Boston.
All three of Boston’s guards have to try and gunk up Philadelphia’s Harden-Embiid actions while keeping track of the speedy Tyrese Maxey. Marcus Smart in particular will have a huge defensive spotlight as a screen navigator, on-ball stopper and potential nuisance for Embiid to deal with. His shooting touch and his decisions off the dribble will also be under scrutiny, as they often are.
PJ Tucker’s impact in his minutes will be quietly pivotal. Is he shooting and making corner threes? Is he contributing as a rebounder? Is he frustrating the Celtics on defense? Tucker might not be a standout player, but when he’s clicking, it unlocks so much for Philly on both ends.
I’ll second PJ Tucker as the Philly x-factor. Will he be a physical defensive irritant, tone setter of toughness, and hit back-breaking corner 3s when left open (as he did down the stretch of the final regular season matchup)? Or will he be a step slow defensively and an inconsistent shooter that can’t punish defenders sagging off him to clog up the paint?
On the Celtics end, it has to be Horford. He is simultaneously the best Embiid defender the Celtics have, and his 3 point shooting from the 5 spot (which was a little inconsistent in the first round: 7/21) is needed to try and draw Embiid out from the paint and open up driving lanes for the Jays.
I know we’re not supposed to talk about James Harden as part of this prompt, but I keep coming back to the erstwhile Houston Rocket as the most important inflection point of this series. The Sixers swept the Nets in the first round, but, very quietly, Harden did not look like himself. He’s still a lethal playmaker and combustive shooter, but coming off a nebulous Achilles injury, he’s not getting to the rim nearly as effectively as we have become accustomed to seeing. Per Basketball Reference, he shot just 5-of-26 within 10 feet of the rim against the Nets, an anemic rate that could have dire consequences for the Philadelphia offense in the second round. We just watched Trae Young dissect the Boston defense with his mastery of the pick-and-roll; if Harden can get downhill the way he’s been capable of in the past, he could be an absolutely destructive force. If not, the Sixers could quickly find themselves scrambling for answers behind Joel Embiid. This James Harden just isn’t as much of a known quality as we might think, and what version of him we see in this series could swing the fate of the Eastern Conference Playoffs. (edited)
Not who, but what: 3-point shooting. The Celtics obviously rely on their deep game, making 16.0 treys on 42.6 attempts per regular season game (both no. 2 in the league) to rank no. 6 in percentage at 37.7%. Al Horford was the NBA’s second-best distance shooter at 44.6%, while Malcolm Brogdon was no. 4 at 44.4% and Sam Hauser was 13th at 41.8%. However, the Sixers led the NBA in 3-point accuracy at 38.7%, making 12.6 of 32.6 shots on average. Tyrese Maxey was good on 43.4% from the arc to rank fifth. In round one of the playoffs, both the Celtics and the Sixers elevated their long-distance success rate to 40.6%. The team that continues that trend and wins the 3-point battle will likely win the series.
Tyrese Maxey is my swing factor for the Sixers. I love this guy's game. Energy, hustle, determination, and a little bit of ruthless aggression, all combined with scoring and defense, Maxey will be a livewire that Boston needs to keep quiet. For the Celtics, I think Grant Williams will play an important role — after missing most of the series against the Atlanta Hawks, the Sixers project to be a series where he can thrive on both sides of the ball. I also want to give a quick nod to Tobias Harris and Robert Williams, both of whom have the ability to shape the flow of a game if they’re put in a position to succeed.