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August 14, 2020

Sixers vs. Celtics playoff preview: Matchups, weaknesses, and predictions for round one series

The Sixers have reached the end of a long regular-season road, and a first-round matchup with the Boston Celtics feels about right. After luring away Boston big man Al Horford to undercut a rival and bolster the frontcourt, Philadelphia now has a chance to prove it wasn't an ill-fated move.

They're up against a team that, quite frankly, has been much better than them this season. But the Sixers do have the season series to hold over Boston's head — for the first time in a while, they bested their division rivals 3-1, including a win in a game Embiid was not available for. Those games feel like they took place five years ago with how the world has changed since then.

How much can we take from that series to apply to this one? How will Ben Simmons' absence impact the series? And do the Sixers have a chance in this one in spite of how things are trending? We're going to attempt to answer those questions.

Styles and stats

A quick disclaimer before we flash the chart — effective field-goal percentage (or EFG) adjusts the normal field-goal percentage stat to account for three-point makes being worth more than two-point makes. Pretty simple. And of course, these stats do not include Philadelphia's final game vs. Houston on Friday night.

 W/L Record42-30 48-24 
 OFF RTG. (pts. per 100 possessions) 110.4 (16th)112.8 (4th) 
 DEF RTG. (pts. allowed per 100)108.6 (8th)  106.5 (4th)
 Effective field goal percentage (EFG%)53.2 (16th) 53.1 (18th) 
 Opponent EFG%52.4 (12th)50.9 (4th)
 Pace (possessions used per game) 99.53 (20th) 99.92 (17th)
 Opponent 3P% 35.6 (16th)34.0 (2nd) 

So let's state the obvious here: the Celtics have been a considerably better team than the Sixers for most of this season. Boston has the statistical profile of a contender, ranking in the top-five of both offense and defense with balanced scoring, tough individual shotmakers, and an elite head coach. Any case for the Sixers to win this series rests on believing they have another gear for the playoffs, which is aspirational thinking for a team that has been middling for much of the season.

Kemba Walker was Boston's big addition, but this has transformed into Jayson Tatum's team this season. Tatum has flashed the potential to be an offense-carrying No. 1 option this season. The Duke product nearly doubled his three-point output this season at over seven attempts per game, and he's hitting them at a 40 percent clip. 

What's scary is the type of shots he's making. For Tatum, 4.7 of his 7.1 attempts per game are pull-up threes, and he's making those at a 40.4 percent rate. When you combine that with his catch-and-shoot ability, his tough shotmaking from the mid-post, and his ability to finish around the basket, he's tough to deal with.

The Celtics also have the best impact bench player in Marcus Smart, one of the most rugged defenders in the league and a guy who will get plenty of crunch-time reps depending on how matchups shake out. Smart's ability to play bigger than his size creates a dilemma for a lot of opponents, in that the Celtics get the benefits of downsizing without paying for it with mismatches at the other end.

Boston is not dissimilar to the Toronto team Sixers fans got familiar with in last year's seven-game classic. Walker is a potential defensive liability, but they're excellent at timing help defense and then recovering to shooters, which is reflected in their defense of the three-point line. Without Ben Simmons, the Sixers' pace is likely to drop even further, and this could end up being one of the few slugfests in a bubble that has featured very little defense.

Matchups to watch

Boston's perimeter trio vs. Philly's perimeter defenders

Ben Simmons' absence is going to leave Philadelphia with holes to fill all over the floor. They'll feel it most on defense, where his absence is going to create an uncomfortable domino effect that sets up the Celtics for success.

With Philadelphia's new starting group, the matchups shake out fairly clean if they're healthy. Simmons guards Jayson Tatum, Richardson takes Kemba Walker, and Tobias Harris is on Jaylen Brown. That third matchup is one Brown can exploit, but it's one you have to live with given the options.

The Simmons injury removes Philadelphia's best option for Tatum, and the domino effect is real. Richardson is not really burly enough to guard him, but if you do choose to go that route, that leaves Shake Milton to deal with Kemba Walker. You can use Harris on Tatum because he has a similar body type at the very least, but that's asking for disaster. And under all of this, you have to decide what to do with Milton and Al Horford. The former is a bad defender and the latter is, well, a center being asked to guard wings.

I'd line it up like this, assuming they stick with the same starting lineup:


Richardson is better at defending Walker types than he is defending bigger guys, so that's the first move. Hayward is the least dangerous at this stage, so you hope Milton can survive there. I think the Harris and Horford matchups are a toss-up, and I wouldn't count Embiid out defending Tatum for stretches, but Horford being a smarter defender whose legs look better in Orlando leads me to believe he should get the top assignment rather than Harris, a below-average defender on most days. Tatum's a good athlete but not necessarily a "blow-by" guy, so you hope that Horford's length and positional sense can disrupt Tatum before he can get a head of steam going.

(In the regular season, Horford did a decent job defending Brown, so maybe you keep that pairing and see if Harris can just survive on Tatum. I don't think it's how I would go, but there's some logic to it.)

There will be cries for changes to the starting lineup, especially if the Sixers drop the first game. The Sixers have the best rookie perimeter defender in the league in Matisse Thybulle, and Glenn Robinson III has prototype size to defend wings. On paper, both of those guys sound like better bets to defend the Boston wings than Horford.

I'm not so sure that's true in practice. Thybulle profiles similarly to Richardson in that his best work in this series will probably come on Walker — he held Walker to 33 percent shooting in three meetings this season — and sticking him on bigger wings who will use that strength advantage to initiate contact and draw fouls could get him out of the game in a hurry. And I've seen nothing to suggest Robinson III is a credible defender in a starting-level capacity.

Joel Embiid vs. Boston's bigs 

On paper, Joel Embiid should have a field day against the Celtics. No individual player they can throw at him can guard him one-on-one, and he has a massive size and strength advantage in at least a couple of different matchups.

This is going to hinge on two different factors: Embiid's ability to deal with double teams and his willingness to be used outside of post-up play.

The first point has been a huge point of emphasis in Orlando, but the Celtics have disrupted him historically by making him second guess himself with the timing of their double teams. When Embiid settles into a rhythm and can anticipate when he needs to get rid of the ball, he has basically been unguardable. Boston will almost certainly disguise their doubles so they come from every angle with erratic timing.

Embiid had one of his best games of the season against Boston in mid-December: 38 points, 13 rebounds, and six assists with just two turnovers in a win. These are the type of reads he has to make for the Sixers to have a chance: 

A quieter, perhaps as important subplot is Embiid getting involved in the offense as a screener and roller. Boston's Enes Kanter is well-known as a terrible, exploitable defender, and Embiid is certainly capable of winning possessions against him. But Kanter's struggles are predominantly in space, not when he's asked to go body-on-body with another big man, and you bail him out by just trying to post him up constantly. It's not to say he's "good" at that part of the game, but it lets him off the hook if you simplify the game for him.

Philadelphia's offense has swung dramatically toward the pick-and-roll in Orlando, in part because of personnel but in part because they wanted to change things up with a new group. Embiid doesn't love spending a ton of time rolling, but if Kanter plays, he has to get involved beyond the post.

A potential subplot: Robert Williams has been getting burn for the Celtics in Orlando, in some instances more than Kanter off of the bench. This might not matter because Embiid would go through him like paper-mache in the post. But I could see the Celtics getting creative, using Williams' bounce against Horford (who struggles to deal with vertical bigs) and Kanter's size against Embiid. 

Brett Brown vs. Brad Stevens

In last year's playoff run, Brett Brown had a strong campaign and, like his team on the floor, could end the season with his head held high. The same was not true in 2018 when Brad Stevens' Celtics picked on the young Sixers and Brown was far too slow to make adjustments. By the time they changed the starting lineup for Game 4, it was too late.

There's a lot more urgency for Brown now, and it'll be interesting to see how experimental he'll get, how quickly panic could set in if Boston smacks them around early. Knowing that he could be out of a job if the Sixers don't go deep, there could be dramatic tweaks game-to-game.

One thing I am keeping an eye on specifically: Philadelphia's base pick-and-roll coverage. Historically, as most of you know, the Sixers have their big men (specifically Joel Embiid) sit in "centerfield" coverage, dropping toward the basket while chasing over screens and hoping to entice teams into taking long twos. It has been mostly successful on a broader scale, though it has been relatively inflexible and punished by a lot of guards over the years.

In Orlando, the Sixers have freed up Embiid to show in against pick-and-rolls on occasion, something we have rarely seen them do in the past. It has still been infrequent, and Embiid needs to be a little lighter on his feet if they're going to roll this out more often:

But these are the sort of things they need to have in their back pocket to mix it up and make sure Boston's perimeter players have to second-guess themselves. 

X-factor: Shake Milton 

The setting will help Milton (and Philadelphia's other young contributors) avoid the typical postseason pressure that unravels guys early in their careers. I'm not so sure that's going to save him from being mercilessly picked on by the Celtics when the games begin.

As Sixers fans saw firsthand in 2018, this Celtics team is more than happy to hunt switches and attack the most favorable matchup they can get. What's problematic in this series is that they won't even necessarily have to. Four out of Boston's five players on the floor may be able to attack Milton at any given time, and his defense at this point is, well, bad. When he's able to leverage his length, that's when Milton is at his best, so he might be able to hang tough in the mid-post area. But in space? The Celtics might pulverize him.

But if he's somehow able to hang on, Milton (or Alec Burks, for that matter) changes how Boston has to defend the paint. It's harder to swarm Embiid if reliable shooters are around him. While it's likely they'd be willing to let Milton rip from deep over Embiid attacking Daniel Theis on possession after possession, Milton only needs moments of slight hesitation to get his shots up.


There's a fatalist attitude with the Sixers right now, and I don't think that's totally fair. Embiid with additional spacing will be harder to guard than he was in the regular season. Philadelphia also has some more bench firepower with the lift Alec Burks has given them, and they can play truly five-out basketball at times, making it easier for Tobias Harris to get his against second-unit lineups. And though Tatum has been excellent all year, if Joel Embiid can be the best player in the series, that could swing it in Philly's favor.

But not having Simmons on defense is going to be a huge problem, one that I don't think they can necessarily scheme around. There's also a familiarity factor to consider. Boston can continue to do what got them here, while the Sixers have to figure out a new defensive plan (and perhaps game-to-game lineup changes) to account for the hole in the lineup. They're playing from behind before the series even starts.

So I'm predicting an early Philly exit, and one that will kick off an offseason of soul searching for Philadelphia. 

Celtics in six games.

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