Right now, the series is see-sawing between both sides. The Sixers claimed Game 1; the Celtics claimed Games 2 and 3. However, if Boston can make it three wins on the bounce, the narrative changes, and the countdown to the conference finals begins — alas, under our breath so as not to jinx anything.
At this point, it feels like we’ve seen everything the Sixers have to offer. Boston took James Harden’s best punch in the opener, and since then, he has returned to his cryogenically frozen state. Joel Embiid literally stamped his mark on Game 3, and it made no difference except for a few stitches. Rest up, Grant Williams.
If we’re being honest, the Sixers, for all of their off-season retooling, lack a bonafide sparkplug off the bench, and that is proving to be a considerable stumbling block for them to overcome. Of course, that issue is made tougher by the presence of Malcolm Brogdon, who has been a fearsome proposition off Boston’s bench.
Still, if the NBA has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. So, here are three things to watch in Sunday’s game four contest.
Stick with what’s working
Since Harden’s ‘Angels in the Outfield’ moment in the series opener, Joe Mazzulla has tasked Jaylen Brown with keeping the former superstar from having another big night. So far, that move has paid dividends, as Harden has resumed his role of being the Sixers' initiator rather than the guy who puts the team on his back — Boston will live with that.
Brown’s size, length, and athleticism have proven to be a foil for Harden’s ability to operate as a pick-and-roll scorer, especially off of the drag screens which Philadelphia utilized to such devastating in Game 1. Capable of fighting through contact, exploding over or under the screener, and getting into Harden’s airspace on shot contests, Brown is playing a prominent role in subduing the former MVP.
So, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Until the Sixers find a way to put Harden back in a position to make waves, keeping Brown as his primary defender makes all the sense in the world, especially if it continues to produce disjointed performances from the Sixers' primary creator.
What changes with Embiid?
Joel Embiid is nowhere near 100%; that much is clear. Yet, in his first two games of the series, we’ve seen the Sixers look to utilize him on the perimeter, on the elbow, and in the mid-post — all of which have failed to produce significant results. Sure, the Celtics are notorious for the work they do on the 2023 MVP, but his lack of mobility, conditioning, and verticality are all hindering his impact, too.
I would expect Doc Rivers to continue experimenting with how to situate Embiid for success. Will we see him become an elbow DHO threat like Bam Adebayo? A dump-off threat for easy buckets? Or will it be more of the same in the hope that another game's worth of conditioning will allow Embiid to tap into his basketball powers and come alive?
When it comes to swing factors, there don’t come much bigger than Embiid and his ability to begin playing at the level we saw from him during the regular season and earlier in the playoffs. Yet, with Al Horford, Grant Williams, and Robert Williams all taking turns trying to slow him down, we might find that his tough reintegration into Philadelphia’s rotation continues in Game 4, or so we hope.
Controlling the pace
In the last two games, the Celtics have controlled the pace of the game. They’ve run the break when they wanted to, slowed things down in the half-court when it pleased them, pressured the rim, and punished space on the perimeter. Frankly, it’s all gone Boston’s way, save for some inevitable runs.
Nevertheless, we’ve seen what the Sixers are capable of when they control the tempo, especially if you have De’Anthony Melton and Tyrese Maxey sprinting the floor, looking to generate some early offense. As such, the Celtics should enter this game with a similar mindset to the last two: make them feel you. Let every possession be a reminder of your physicality and athleticism while you continue to display elite-level shot-making.
Personally, I will be looking to Boston’s guard trio to control the tempo, read the defense, and look to punish whatever gaps present themselves. Of course, we can expect Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to also have a say in those proceedings during the possessions in which they bring the ball up court.
I’m really struggling to see where the Sixers go from here. When the Celtics are locked in and playing their best basketball, and Embiid is struggling for health and fitness, it appears that Boston is simply too talented for the Sixers to stop.
Of course, Boston is capable of beating itself; they can be world-beaters one moment and ‘Cheddar Bob’ the next. This is why you would hope that the chance to go 3-1 up in a series against your rivals is enough to keep their eyes on the prize and motivate them to go out and put on a dominant display for the third straight game.