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April 28, 2023

The biggest questions heading into Sixers vs. Celtics series

From Joel Embiid's health to James Harden's scoring, here are the biggest questions ahead of the Sixers-Celtics playoff matchup.

The matchup everyone has been waiting for and/or dreading is finally here, with the Sixers and Celtics set to battle each other for the 22nd time in playoff history. Philadelphia has not beaten their division rival in the playoffs since 1982, a problem they'll be looking to correct despite Boston owning homecourt advantage for this one.

Here are the biggest questions heading into the series, which starts next Monday night. 

What does Joel Embiid have to offer?

Joel Embiid is dealing with an injury and heads into the Celtics series at less than 100 percent. Even if we subscribe to the messaging coming out of Sixers world that they're optimistic on his state of being, even if we play up the value of Embiid getting this extended break thanks to a Round 1 sweep of the Brooklyn Nets, it doesn't change that he is compromised to some degree. Hell, we don't even know if he'll be ready to start the series on Monday, and that's just three days away.

Embiid's last two games against the Celtics this season made clear how much he can swing this matchup all by himself. In the final two meetings of the season, Embiid was basically the only Sixers player who had it going, and that was enough for one close win and one game that ended on a Jayson Tatum buzzer-beater. The season splits are outrageous — 36.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game on 61.2 percent shooting. Those numbers have come with Embiid shooting almost nothing but bricks from three, so there's a chance he could be even more dominant if he's even an average outside shooter on low volume.

It used to be that Boston would be expected to slow him down and get in his head. When you score 93 points in two games against that same opponent late in the year, those concerns go out the window to some extent. Embiid has thoroughly dominated old foe Al Horford in the individual battle this season. According to NBA tracking data, Horford has guarded Embiid for around 66 possessions this season, with Embiid making 64.3 percent of his shots against him. The Celtics did not find a strategy that worked consistently against Embiid, as he destroyed single coverage and made better, quicker decisions against double attempts.

This is as simple as it gets — if the Sixers have a version of Embiid even close to his MVP form, he's the best player in the series and the great equalizer. But until we see him on the floor, there is no way of knowing how much he has to give.

Can Tyrese Maxey shake off his Celtics woes?

Tyrese Maxey has played 10 games against the Boston Celtics in his career. In those 10 games, he is shooting 34 percent from the field, 32.1 percent from three, and averaging just 8.2 points per game. They are his worst splits against any team in the league by a fairly comfortable margin. The numbers are still ugly if you only include his stats from this season: 10 points per game, 35.4 percent shooting overall, 21.4 percent shooting from deep. All of the progress he has shown as a marksman against the rest of the league has not shown up against Boston.

"I watched a lot of film on it. In the middle of the season, that was kind of during my mental stuff," Maxey noted at practice this week. "Last game, I think I hurt my back messing with [P.J. Tucker] and getting a rebound. But I mean, the ultimate goal is not about me, it's about winning. So it's like, what can we do to stop either Atlanta or Boston as many times as we can, and at the end of the game when there's zeroes across the board have more points than they do."

Not exactly the most reassuring answer, though the mental component of Maxey's struggles midseason is something he has brought up repeatedly. Maxey is definitely in a better place now than he was a few months ago.

If we look at some of his struggles against the Celtics specifically, we can see the importance of Doc Rivers' favorite buzzword: spacing. When Philadelphia lost a midseason game to a shorthanded Boston team, there were some possessions that defy belief structurally. For example, after this possession was recycled to get the ball to Maxey late in the clock, the Sixers are overloaded on one side of the floor, and Boston ignores Matisse Thybulle once he finally does space out to the weakside corner.

There's also the matter of changes to the rotation to help Maxey. Nowadays, James Harden is the guy anchoring second-unit lineups without Embiid on the floor, a role Maxey struggled with generally before Philly started staggering their stars. He has been much more dangerous as a secondary attacker against scrambling defenses than he has been as the focal point of the group. And unless something goes horribly wrong, he shouldn't have to spend much (if any) time with Montrezl Harrell on the floor, as he did earlier this season.

But Maxey has his own work left to do, too. The Celtics have the type of defenders who can give him problems on the perimeter, tough and athletic guards like Derrick White and Marcus Smart who will get into his chest without fearing Maxey beating them to the rim too often. He has missed shots you'd expect him to make against basically any other team — he missed three layup attempts on one possession vs. the Celtics this year — and they might just be a team that he has to have one big game against to clear the mental hurdle.

How will the Sixers defend Boston's bigs?

Full-strength matchups between the two teams have been hard to find this year, but Philadelphia's 110-107 loss to Boston in late February is our best recent example. If the Sixers can take solace from anything in that game, it was the degree to which they blew up what Boston wanted to do late, battling back into the game by neutralizing one of their favorite looks.

The Al Horford/Robert Williams III frontcourt was a big part of Boston's playoff run last season, though it has fallen out of favor late in the year of bumping Derrick White up to a starter's role. We could see the cracks in that two-big lineup start to show thanks to how Embiid and the Sixers played it in February — Philadelphia used Embiid as a roamer off the non-shooting Williams, which allowed Embiid to play rim protector while Philadelphia's perimeter guys hugged up on Boston's shooting threats. 

Simply taking Williams off the floor and playing Horford as the lone big complicates things for the Sixers. I need not remind anyone around here that Horford has made a killing against the Sixers by stretching the floor and forcing Embiid to come out to meet him, which is an even more dangerous threat with Embiid nursing that knee sprain. While Horford has shown signs of his age already in these playoffs — the Hawks attacked him constantly on switches late in their series — his ability to make Embiid second-guess his footing is undeniable, and if he can beat Embiid closing out on him, Horford is a good enough passer to undress Philadelphia in rotation. 

Let's be frank, much of Philadelphia's defensive integrity rests on Embiid playing free safety behind some iffy point-of-attack defenders. I would argue Embiid's best defensive play of the season came on a play against Boston where the Sixers appeared to be comfortable to concede another one of those threes to Horford if it meant keeping Embiid by the rim, where he turned Jaylen Brown away and started a huge fast break.

The Sixers can game the matchups and move Embiid around some, but if Horford makes open jumpers, it does not allow him to lurk there as much, upping the pressure on the likes of Harden, Maxey, and Harris to keep guys in front of them. And Horford is not the only Boston big who has compromised this approach for Philly this season, with Blake Griffin going off from deep in Boston's shorthanded win in early February.

In the final meeting of the year, a game Williams missed due to injury, the Sixers freely switched Embiid on a majority of ball screens, taking their chances with Embiid guarding Jayson Tatum while having a guard close the gap against Horford, preventing clean catch-and-shoot looks. That worked well for the Sixers, as Horford shot just 3/10 from deep and Tatum was 7/20 from the field, planting the seeds for a viable playoff strategy. However, it would be asking a ton of Embiid to chase a perimeter player like Tatum around while dealing with a knee injury. We'll see how hard they're able/willing to push him on the defensive end.

Which James Harden will be there for this series?

Harden opened the season with an absolute banger against the Celtics and inspired thousands of "James Harden is back!" claims all around the basketball universe. That feeling did not persist, but it was a good season for Harden against the boys in green and white.

One of the reasons the Sixers consistently came up short in the second was the lack of a ballhandler who could punish weak defenders, allowing teams like the Hawks, Heat, and Celtics to get away with juicing up their offense with no penalty on the other end. A full-go Harden should be able to correct that problem, making the Celtics feel pain anytime they throw a questionable defensive player into the rotation. 

And Harden should be able to succeed against better defensive players in this series, too. As previously mentioned, Horford struggled on switches against Hawks guards in Round 1, and that's a pressure point you would hope Harden is able to exploit against the Celtics in this series. His numbers against Derrick White were bad in the regular season (1/6 from the field on roughly 42 possessions) but Harden has a strength advantage in that matchup and should be able to dislodge White as a rim attacker if he concerns himself with playing to score rather than playing to draw fouls.

But that last bit is sort of the key with Harden — he has had plenty of big performances in the playoffs over the years, but Round 1 brought back the creeping dread of his playoff stinkers, games where Harden has looked mentally checked out and unsure of himself in big moments. A confident, aggressive Harden can tilt the floor and create an avalanche of open looks for Philadelphia. If he is passive and unengaged, it will be tough to beat an elite team with or without Embiid available. 

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