It might have taken longer than many of us expected, but the Boston Celtics booked their path to the Eastern Conference semifinals after defeating the Atlanta Hawks 4-2 in their opening series. Yet, while the Hawks provided a sterner test than we envisioned, the Philadelphia 76ers mark a significant step up in talent.
Of course, given the Celtics' strength in depth, the Sixers won’t hold an advantage across the board, but maybe in one or two areas; as such, here are three key matchups heading into the second-round series.
James Harden vs. Marcus Smart
I don’t know about you, but I’m all in on the matchup between Marcus Smart and James Harden. An offensive maestro vs. a human singularity, it will be interesting to see how Harden and Smart look to get the better of each other.
Perhaps Harden utilizes screening actions to get away from Smart’s bulldog-like defense consistently, or maybe Smart fights through the contact to hound Harden for every second he has the ball. Of course, unlike Philadelphia, the Celtics boast numerous on-ball defenders, so if Smart is struggling to contain the former MVP, Joe Mazzulla can go to Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, or Malcolm Brogdon to try and fluster a player who finished 2nd in assists per game behind only Trae Young.
In fairness, Harden is a much better matchup for Smart than Young was, especially in terms of speed, unpredictability, and shot profile. As such, we can expect one of the key battles of the series to happen at the guard position, with these two veterans going toe-to-toe.
Montrezl Harrell vs. Robert Williams
We might not see this matchup straight away if Joel Embiid is out of the Sixers' rotation. However, assuming Embiid returns at some point in the series, we’re going to see Montrezl Harrell and Robert Williams battle as the first bigs off the bench. While Harrell is not an athletic phenom who stretches a team’s interior defense to the max, he is a pitbull that wills his way to the rim and creates issues around the perimeter when operating as the roll-man in actions involving someone who can shoot off the dribble.
As Williams and Harrell face off, we will see two different styles of basketball on display. One is a physical brand, where strength and abrasiveness are the names of the game, while the other is based on screening, passing, and leaping into the sky. While neither big is going to single-handedly win a game for their team, both are capable of turning the tide and creating momentum, so it will be interesting to see who gets the edge over their counterpart when they eventually face off.
Tobias Harris vs. Jayson Tatum
Sometimes, I feel bad for Tobias Harris. With such a high salary comes high expectations, and at times during his tenure with the Sixers, it felt as though he was being miscast in his role. Yet, this season, Harris has found his role, although that has meant taking a step back in volume for his team. A capable three-level scorer, Harris can get you buckets when you need them, but he’s also a valuable wing defender, especially given his size and frame.
Still, Harris is going to have one of the toughest jobs in the NBA: guarding Jayson Tatum. Sure, Tatum is prone to the occasional stinker, and odds are, he has a bad outing at least once during the upcoming series. Nevertheless, when he’s on his game, there aren’t many better scorers, playmakers, and offensive initiators at the wing position than Tatum, and he uses all of those skills to make your life a living nightmare if you’re tasked with trying to contain him.
Harris might be his team’s third option, but on defense, he will have no choice but to guard a genuine star in the league. Of course, Doc Rivers might try putting PJ Tucker onto Tatum, but given his increasing age and limiting mobility, that experiment projects to be short-lived. Overall, Tatum should have the advantage over any wing matchup he faces in the upcoming series, but Harris won’t just roll over and accept defeat.
Philadelphia boasts a deep team that was re-constructed over the summer to be capable of contending for an NBA championship. However, Boston’s roster has benefitted from some internal development, smart front office moves, and the evolution of their offensive approach.
These two rivals know each other well, and that will only serve to ensure a competitive series across the board. However, the Celtics have talent oozing throughout their roster, and if they remain focused night-in night-out, they should be more than capable of booking their spot back in the conference finals.