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May 09, 2018

Sixers vs. Celtics Game 5 preview: Can Philly steal a game in hostile territory?

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050918-JoelEmbiid-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA Today

Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell talks with guard Ben Simmons and center Joel Embiid (left) during the fourth quarter in game four of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Boston Celtics at Wells Fargo Center.

BOSTON — Before we can earnestly ask whether the Sixers are prepared to dig themselves out of a 3-0 hole, we must first determine whether they're equipped to go on the road and get a win at TD Garden. It will be easier said than done for Philadelphia to emerge from Game 5 with a win — the Celtics have yet to drop a home game this postseason and boast one of the loudest and proudest basketball crowds in the league.

Philadelphia has already seen firsthand what can happen when you let the Celtics back into a game and allow their fans to get rocking. Game 2 looked like a sure victory for Philadelphia when they raced out to a 22-point lead, but a major run heading into halftime changed the course of the game, with TD Garden hitting deafening levels and everything crumbling for the Sixers.

The home fans and the players they're cheering on smell blood and would love nothing more than to be able to stay at home for a few more days. Boston is not interested in a return trip to Philly any more than the Sixers were interested in going back to Miami in round one — and that Miami weather is pretty nice.

So the Sixers will find themselves for a motivated, and better-than-expected Celtics group in Game 5, and will have to fight tooth and nail to get it over the line. How do they get there? So glad you asked.

Taking some focus away from the game

Philadelphia has been all about its business since digging themselves a deep 3-0 hole, which included packing for their trip to Boston before they were even guaranteed to go back for Game 5. These guys may be young, but they are taking this opportunity very seriously.

At least most of the time, that is. During the team's dinner on Tuesday night, T.J. McConnell revealed that a mentalist joined the group as they sat and enjoyed each other's company, showing off a few "magic" tricks for a Sixers team deep in concentration on the task at hand.

"I figured out a couple of his tricks," JJ Redick joked at Wednesday's shootaround. He was in the mood for a little extra sarcasm, too: "Anytime you get together and have dinner, it's great, and when you add a mentalist, it just takes it to another level."

There was a relaxed vibe at Wednesday's shootaround in Boston, with guys joking around and tossing balls at one another in the middle of interviews with wry smiles on their faces. A more crotchety reporter might note that this is the look of a team that needs to focus more on the task at hand, but it is nothing more than the fabric of their team shining through. Joel Embiid, ever the showman, came out in a pair of Yeezys and goofed around before starting his pre-game prep in earnest.

"It's a young team, I think it can be a good thing," said Brown at shootaround. "That doesn't water down the desperate nature that we feel, we get this is a closeout game, and we're going to be having this discussion I hope for a while. I think it's just who they are, it's a free group, they believe in themselves ... I don't want too high a level of anxiety, I don't think that helps anyone think or play."

Striking that balance between staying loose and ending up unprepared is key and is certainly going to vary from player to player. Ben Simmons has been in business mode up here, and never left the free-throw line during the time the Sixers were available to the media. He has not been as good in Round 2 as the team needs him to be, but it's not for lack of effort and prep time.

Attacking Boston's constantly diminishing depth

Losing Shane Larkin would not be worth a whole lot of hemming and hawing on a normal team, especially one with a starter as good as Kyrie Irving. But with Irving done for the season and Boston's backup guards being thrust into bigger roles, the loss of Larkin to a shoulder injury — suffered when attempting to run through an Embiid screen in Game 4 — has legitimate consequences for Boston in Game 5.

Larkin's absence will call into question what Brad Stevens wants to do (and can do) with his starting lineup. With Jaylen Brown on the mend with a bothersome hamstring, Boston's head coach has elected to use Marcus Smart as a starter and use Brown in a large, but still dialed-down role off the bench. Brown is averaging a shade over 25 minutes per game in round two, a cut of over five minutes per game from his regular season average and a dip of almost 10 minutes per game from the Milwaukee series.

A major key to Boston's success so far against Philadelphia has been their ability to put handlers on the floor at all times, often at multiple positions simultaneously. Larkin by himself isn't a big factor, but he is part of that equation and an additional dribble-driver for Philadelphia to keep track of on closeouts.

In theory, the Celtics can split up whatever reps he might have received amongst their higher end guys and perhaps get even better results. But they all come with drawbacks and limitations; Brown can serve as a point forward for stretches, but he's had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio for his entire career to date and is still presumably held back by health concerns. Stevens can stagger Rozier and Smart some more to split responsibility between those two, but if the latter is asked to run things, Philadelphia will almost certainly live with the wild three-point attempts he has been chucking up all series.

If Smart leading the second-unit becomes a thing, Boston will run up against some extremes on either side of the ball. Per Cleaning the Glass, five-man groups with Smart at the one were in the 18th percentile of all five-man units on offense, mustering up just 103.5 points per 100 possessions. But there were as elite as it gets on defense, holding teams to just over 93 points per 100 possessions this season for a placement in the 99th percentile. Keep in mind this all comes in a minuscule sample size, and Smart's limitations as a primary initiator might be further amplified in a playoff setting against an elite defense.

Conceptually, the Sixers should be happy to make the trade-off of elite D for horrendous offense for Boston. The Celtics put themselves in position to win a series because several players have overachieved on offense against the Sixers, not because their elite defense suddenly became even more elite. This is not to suggest bunkering down in that defensive shell can't get the Celtics over the line, only that Boston should be preparing for Philadelphia to break out of their three-point shooting slump at some point, and expect to have to keep pace themselves.

Keeping Embiid engaged and productive on defense

When analysts discuss the idea of saving someone's legs on the defensive end of the floor, typically you hear that applied to guards and wings a lot more than you do a big man. Some of this stems from the nature of the position, because up until Dirk the recent paradigm shift in how big men play the vast majority were just big bodies who set up shop near the hoop. You could never really shift a center's assignment to make his job less taxing, as you could if you moved a player like Steph Curry onto an off-ball threat.

But with how the league is changing, the Sixers will occasionally need to find creative ways to enable Embiid to be the best version of himself. Taking on the Al Horford challenge has been taxing for Embiid because you have to guard against all sorts of skills and contingencies. Close too hard on the jumper and Horford is happy to drive by you and either score at the rim or hit an open teammate, but fail to get in his airspace and he will knock down enough shots to make your life miserable.

Chasing Horford from the rim to beyond the arc had a noticeable effect early in the series because of how often Boston uses him as a hub. Embiid is many things, but he's still not an iron man on the conditioning front, especially after missing a critical period at the end of the regular season. In Games 1 and 2 especially, you could see Embiid tire in the guts of the game.

How do you avoid that problem? By sliding him onto a different player, of course!

With the starting lineup for Boston out there, this has been a little bit easier for the Sixers to get away with. As I highlighted in yesterday's piece, the Sixers have been happy to funnel Boston's offense toward Aron Baynes in the corner, where Embiid has helped off of the center to bother Horford or briefly close on other shooters. It gets a little trickier once Boston goes to their bench, but Brown insisted on having Embiid stick Philly native Marcus Morris for stretches of Game 4.

It worked out wonderfully for Philadelphia, even if Morris isn't necessarily an easy cover. While he draws Embiid out to the perimeter, he does not have the same dynamism or versatility Horford does once he puts the ball on the floor, and Philadelphia's center has proven up to the task when he has to deal with Morris attacking him off-the-dribble.


It also helps to have the accompanying personnel to guard Horford and provide Embiid with that easier assignment. Horford has been effective when guarded by Dario Saric, shooting over 55 percent from the field, but Horford is also shooting at a much lower rate than he has with either Embiid or Ersan Ilyasova guarding him. Saric has done well to put a body on Horford in the post and is plenty capable of keeping track of him as Boston's big man drifts to the perimeter.

All of this allows for Embiid to spend more time worrying about protection of the rim, which is where he and the Sixers need him to have his biggest impact. If the Sixers can keep their preferred alignments in place and dictate terms with how they guard Boston, they have a puncher's chance to send the series back to Philadelphia, raucous crowd or not.


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