In a tale as old as time, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers are set to face off in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. The two teams have had their battles over their storied histories, but especially over the past few years with the Embiid-era Sixers and the Jaylen Brown/Jayson Tatum-led Celtics.
However, this year may be a bit different.
After sustaining a sprained LCL in his right knee during the 76ers sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, Joel Embiid is listed as doubtful for Game 1 as of Sunday afternoon. Reports from The Athletic’s Shams Charania have further put a wrench into the MVP frontrunner’s return, as his injury is considered more severe than a Grade 1 sprain. If and when Joel Embiid returns to the lineup is uncertain based on his recovery and pain tolerance, but whenever that may be, Philly’s star center is expected to be significantly limited.
That shouldn’t (and seemingly hasn’t) changed the approach or mentality of the Celtics heading into Game 1 at TD Garden.
“They play a little bit faster,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla on the Sixers’ approach without Embiid. “Obviously, each guy’s more aggressive, I think. They’re more empowered, whether it’s Harden, whether it’s Maxey, whether it’s Harris. They’re looking to affect the game in different ways, and they play a little bit of a different pace.”
While the Sixers swept the Nets, the Celtics went to six games against the Atlanta Hawks, a team that really managed to push Boston and force them to play tougher and with more energy. A lot of old habits were exposed, and it took Boston getting back to playing with energy, pace, and hustling for rebounds to take the series. Now, it’s a matter of applying those same lessons learned again in their series against Philly.
“I mean, really at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how they play,” said Mazzulla, “We have to be prepared to make the right reads. we have to be prepared to have the proper spacing, we have to be prepared to manage the game with our offense.”
Even with the Embiid-shaped hole in their lineup, the 76ers are not a team that the Celtics can underestimate, especially in the first game of a series. Taking their foot off the gas has been a problem for Boston, and Atlanta served as a reminder after a painful collapse in Game 5 at home. While a series without Embiid is worlds easier for the Celtics, it’s still not one they can take lightly, and that sentiment seems to be echoed by the team.
“I’m excited,” said Malcolm Brogdon, “Philly’s one of the big dogs. They’re a contender. We respect them with or without Joel. They’re a really good team, so we’re gonna come out and play good basketball.”
For a newcomer like Brogdon, the matchup offers up a chance to add to Celtics playoff history as well as build out the rivalry lore between the two franchises.
“I’ve watched the games over the years, I know it dates back a while,” said Brogdon on the Celtics-Sixers rivalry. “A lot of great players have played on both sides in this series, so you know that’ll continue. With guys like JT and Embiid competing against each other.”
Over the course of his career, Joel Embiid is 1-8 against the Boston Celtics in the postseason. It will be interesting to see how Philly responds without their centerpiece on the floor, or how it may impact the pace of the game.
“It doesn’t change our mindset; it does change our game plan,” said Brogdon. “That’s a team that’s built around Joel. Everything he does, all the isos, just a high level of scoring. Now that scoring is going to be a little bit dispersed; Harden’s going to be more aggressive, Maxey is going to be more aggressive, and then all the role guys of course are going to be more aggressive. They’ve got a lot of good players, so we can’t just focus in on one guy.”
For a lot of the players on the Celtics roster, facing off against the Sixers is familiar territory, especially for Jaylen Brown. After having a hot start to the playoffs against Atlanta, Brown is looking to carry momentum into the team’s matchup.
“Anytime you get to this point in the playoffs, it’s always going to be a challenge,” said Brown. “Teams game planning for each other, both teams are physically and mentally fatigued, and you’ve got to find a way to win.”
Even after years of experience, there’s a lot to learn and take away from each series, not necessarily about the opponent but about your own team. For Boston, it meant finding ways to persevere and fight through adversity, and they have Atlanta to thank for that.
“I definitely think Atlanta made us have to fight,” said Brown. “Atlanta brought the fight to us and that’s something that you’re gonna need going through these playoffs. So hopefully we’ll be able to carry that as we move on.”
We shall see what the Celtics learned from their first round matchup as Boston will kick off their series against Philadelphia tonight at 7:30 pm EST.