We’re almost at the finish line. In under a week, the NBA season will be over, and we will be preparing for the playoffs; deep diving the opponent, trying to guestimate where the advantages will be with each lineup or rotation, figuring out how each coach will give themselves an edge over the other.
Best of all, we will have those ‘new season’ vibes. The ones where everything is possible, from making a championship run to laying a goose egg in the first round and seeing a series grumble on for more games than it should. Either way, the journey is going to be a fun one, but right now, at this moment, there’s still some regular-season business to take care of.
On Tuesday night, the Boston Celtics will go toe-to-toe with the Philadelphia 76ers. One win in the next four games will ensure that Boston ends the season no lower than 2nd in the Eastern Conference, and for most Celtics fans, having the opportunity to do that against the Sixers is both ideal and poetic.
Of course, the Sixers won’t just roll over and allow the Celtics to secure yet another victory over them, especially one that also has seeding implications. Yet, as we’ve seen so often with this team, Boston raises their game when faced with important contests, taking their play to a new level on both ends — hopefully, they do so again, but it all starts with taking care of business and winning the little battles that pop up throughout the course of a game.
Here are three things to watch.
Keeping Embiid away from his spots
In recent weeks, the Celtics have dealt with the hand-off threat of Domantas Sabonis, the bully-ball style of Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the inside-out game of Myles Turner. The Celtics won each of those games.
While defending different players will always entail a different game plan, one thing remained true throughout those three contests — the Celtics found ways to keep each of them away from their spots. Recently, Boston has adopted a Miami Heat-style pinching defense, with two help defenders stunting at the ball as it enters the lane or post. Neither helper is over-committing, but for a moment, space is taken away and pressure has been applied, often forcing a pick-up.
Furthermore, Joe Mazzulla isn’t afraid to trust his smaller players to guard an opposing big, as he looks to stifle their ability in the post and force a face-up, where Boston’s length becomes a factor.
Joel Embiid is an elite big man, arguably the most talented center in the NBA right now, and has a diverse skillset when looking to score the ball. Yet, if the Celtics can suffocate him around the mid-post, stifle him on the block, and frustrate him throughout the game, chances are, they will find a way of minimizing his impact. Let’s also remember that Al Horford is a tough matchup for Embiid, and Boston does have a track record of getting under the imposing big man's skin.
The Sixers boast one of the best perimeter defenses in the NBA, ranking fourth for three-point defense by holding their opponents to 35.1% shooting from deep. However, the same can’t be said for Philadelphia’s success in guarding the rim, with them allowing 68.4% of attempts to fall, per Cleaning The Glass.
As such, it makes sense for Boston to stick with a lineup that accentuates a five-out offense, where Al Horford is manning the middle, and Joel Embiid is forced to step outside of the paint. If Boston can create driving lanes, put Embiid or Tobias Harris into screening actions, and then blow by defenders to get to the cup, they will be looking at easy scoring opportunities all night.
We could also be looking at a drive-and-kick fest, where the Celtics cause panic and confusion with their drives before generating open threes with well-timed passes, as they have for the majority of the season. So, if the Celtics stick to their usual plan of hitting the paint and reading the defense before making a decision, they should be able to unlock consistent offense against a defense that has consistently struggled to impact shots within four feet of their basket.
Are we getting playoff Jayson Tatum?
After some well-documented struggles when returning from the All-Star break, Jayson Tatum appears to be nearing his best, and that should be a worrying thought for the rest of the NBA. In his last two games, Tatum has scored 79 points, grabbed 19 rebounds, and dished out 4 assists, yet it’s his shooting accuracy which has been so impressive, hitting 72.2% of his looks from three.
If Tatum continues that type of scoring output, then Philadelphia will have a difficult time dealing with Boston’s offense, especially if they make a point of relentlessly attacking the rim and drawing the Sixers' drop defense outside of the restricted area. Sure, both Tatum and Embiid have operated at an MVP level for stretches this season, and both are capable of putting their team on their back, but there’s something about Tatum when he’s cooking that fills you with harmony.
I’m not saying the Celtics will win if Tatum balls out, but I am saying that they have a greater chance of losing if he doesn’t, but that isn’t exactly a newsflash, is it?
Irrespective of the result, the Celtics control their own destiny as far as the second seed goes. One win in four should be more than achievable, especially when they’ve still got two games against the Toronto Raptors and one against the Atlanta Hawks on their schedule.
Still, nothing would please me, and Celtics fans everywhere, than adding another win over the Sixers to Boston’s record, earning the team some additional momentum in what will be their last big game before the playoffs get underway.