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May 01, 2023

Sixers vs. Celtics preview and prediction: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

Previewing the Sixers-Celtics Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup even as questions continue to circle about Joel Embiid's health.

After what has felt like the longest layoff in NBA playoff history, the Sixers are finally ready to go to battle against the Boston Celtics on Monday night. "Will Joel Embiid play?" remains the burning question of the second round, and with hours to go before Game 1, the collective answer remains a giant shrug and a lot of conflicting reporting.

With that in mind, we will try to focus on what is known and how this series might play out, with our round two preview and prediction. 

Tale of the tape

Our every-series reminder: EFG is a stat that simply adjusts to account for three-point makes being worth more than two-point makes

Category Sixers Celtics 
 W/L Record 54-28 (3rd) 57-25 (2nd)
 Pts. per 100 possessions 117.0 (3rd)117.3 (2nd) 
Pts. allowed per 100 poss. 112.7 (8th)110.6 (2nd) 
 Effective FG% 56.3 (6th)56.6 (4th) 
 Opponent EFG% 54.1 (12th) 52.8 (3rd)
 Pace 97.44 (27th)99.15 (20th) 
 Offensive rebounding percentage 54.1 (25th) 52.8 (27th)

When you look at the Sixers and Celtics side-by-side with no other context, it's striking how close the two teams are, though the obvious takeaway is that Boston is just slightly better. In a full-power series of both teams, it's one that you could convince yourself is a coin flip that would be decided by homecourt advantage. That's obviously not the series we're getting, and it also ignores the head-to-head record, which has tilted in Boston's favor for far longer than this season.

Boston's great strength is its ability to adapt to different styles and matchups as is necessary. This is (on paper) not a series where they'll be able to get away with a ton of their double-big lineups, but that's not necessarily a problem for a team that can simply bring Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon in for a bigger role off of the bench — White started and was one of the Celtics' best players in their series against the Hawks. A core that begins with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown starts with a high floor on the defensive end, where the Celtics are comfortable switching across a variety of matchups and rotating back into spots as necessary.

The meaningful gaps between the two teams have shown up not just in the aggregate, but in the individual battles during the regular season. Philadelphia has done an excellent job of slowing down Jayson Tatum for most of this season, but the Celtics have managed to punish the Sixers for overhelping on his trips toward the basket, freeing Boston shooters for clean looks at the hoop. Containing stretch bigs has been a sore spot for the Sixers in this matchup specifically — both Al Horford and Blake Griffin have had big shooting nights against Philly this year, and Embiid's compromised mobility has a chance to compound that problem.

Boston does look vulnerable in some ways coming out of round one, however, as the Celtics were pushed to six games by an Atlanta team that on paper had no shot of challenging them. Horford's vulnerability defending in space was something the Sixers will hope to take advantage of themselves, and could be a spot to get Tyrese Maxey going after a miserable regular season vs. the boys in green and white.

Most important players: James Harden and "The Two Jays" 

Surprise! You thought I was going to say Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum. 

If the Sixers have had problems against the Celtics over the last half-decade or so, they have predominantly come on the offensive end of the floor, where the Celtics have done an excellent job of disrupting their best stuff and ignoring the guys who aren't mentally built for the playoffs. That problem is a huge part of why the Sixers brought in James Harden, who has not been part of this rivalry in a playoff format just yet. 

As far as he is concerned, the scars of the past are not relevant to this series and this moment.

"We can't focus on things that happened in the past. For me, I can't focus on things that didn't go well in the past or whatever the case may be," Harden said over the weekend. "It is what it is, whether it's individual or team, none of that matters. You got to take it and live in the moment and be present."

In the first round matchup against Brooklyn, Harden's struggles to finish around the basket were perhaps the biggest non-Embiid storyline, and were somewhat mystifying given his ability to get by good defenders in the first place. Harden's numbers against the Celtics this season have been very good, though they are driven predominantly by lights-out shooting from deep. To beat Boston in the playoffs, Harden will need to hammer any vulnerabilities on the perimeter — that means beating Horford in space, hitting Paul Reed on rolls if Boston tries to double him on-ball, or rising and firing over a sinking Horford if the Celtics give him space on the perimeter.

What was striking in round one was the disconnect between Harden the driver vs. Harden the finisher. His first step gave him consistent space from defenders that he would eventually concede back to the likes of Nic Claxton or Mikal Bridges, undoing his own good work. Harden's ability and willingness to go up hard toward the rim will be a big thing to watch early in the series, with so many of his misses vs. Brooklyn coming on half-hearted runners and floaters.

The playoff results are a different story, but both of Boston's primary wings have had surprisingly middling numbers against the Sixers over their careers. Tatum's 21 points per game on 44.4 percent from the field in the 2022-23 regular season is only slightly above his career average of 19.4 points per game on 42.5 percent from the field. That's not the profile of a guy you'd expect to give Sixers fans nightmares, but big-time outings in the postseason combined with clutch shotmaking will haunt a lot of people.

Quietly, I am a little bit more concerned about Jaylen Brown's impact on this series than Tatum's, as he's a style of player that I think is more challenging for the P.J. Tucker/Tobias Harris forward combo than someone like Tatum. Harris has his best defensive moments against players like Tatum, who he's similar to in terms of size and athleticism, or against smaller players he can corral by using his length and strength advantages. Brown's combination of size, quickness, and athleticism has given him problems at times, most notably in Boston's opening-night victory over the Sixers last October. Brown is also a dangerous transition player who has punished the Sixers' lackadaisical approach to getting back in the past, and they will have to be on high alert when Boston gets a stop and fills their lanes running the floor.

But the matchup struggle is why it's hard to separate the two important wings on the Celtics — when you commit extra resources to stop Tatum, Brown can get favorable matchups, and that's before thinking about forcing switches to attack the likes of Harden and Maxey.

X-Factor: Joel Embiid's health

Every single day, and arguably every hour at this point, a new person makes a claim about Joel Embiid's health. There's optimism, and then there's a stray report about platelet-rich plasma treatment, the use of a word "miracle" describing a potential Game 1 appearance, and on and on and on.

The Sixers making this any sort of interesting series hinges on Embiid being back, but also Embiid being right. The one thing that can throw a wrench in the gear of the Celtics is Embiid destroying single coverage while operating from the elbows.  Historically, the Celtics have sort of been in the "let Embiid cook" school of thinking, living with him in one-on-one battles while hitting him with the occasional (and excellently timed) double from his weakside in the post. Boston's weapon in this matchup has been making Embiid feel uncertain, but over the last two meetings, it is the likely MVP who has made the Celtics feel unsure of themselves, bulldozing them en route to 93 points in two games.

And even then, it took Embiid putting up dominant numbers on elite efficiency to squeak past the Brown-less Celtics once, losing to Boston on a buzzer-beater in the other game. Even with the massive margin for error he has afforded the other guys, the rest of the Sixers have looked fairly helpless against this team. These numbers are just theoretical, but how ugly does it get if Embiid is only able to perform at 80 percent, 70 percent, or lower? 

There are a ton of important things to consider in this series. Can Tyrese Maxey find himself? Is Tobias Harris capable of sustaining the shotmaking from the end of the Brooklyn series? Will Paul Reed, P.J. Tucker, and Jalen McDaniels come through on the offensive glass, making up in some way for Embiid's absence/limitations? But all of these questions are secondary to Embiid's health. With the real-deal version of Embiid, they have a shot to win it. Without him, they're pretty cooked.

Prediction: Celtics in 6

If Joel Embiid was healthy, I would be comfortable just throwing my hands up and saying it's too close to call. The 3-1 Boston record in the season series is probably slightly misleading, and I frankly do not care about what happened in the playoffs in 2018 and 2020. There's very little leftover on this Sixers team from that first second-round appearance for Embiid, and Horford was playing for Philadelphia alongside Josh Richardson and other notable luminaries in 2020.

With where things stand right now, I think it's more likely it ends with a five-game Boston win than a seven-game war, as I just can't feel confident Embiid is going to be ready to make a difference in this series. If Embiid doesn't play in the first two games on the road and the Sixers don't steal a game in Boston, you would be asking a player coming off of effectively a two-week layoff to come back into the series and help you win 4/5 games to win the series. Embiid has often struggled in his first game or two back from injury while ramping up his conditioning, and look, I'd be lying if I told you this looked rosy for Philadelphia.

But they play the games for a reason, and I don't think Boston is so good that everyone should start turning the page to the offseason yet. The deck is stacked against Philadelphia from where we sit right now, and a quick exit from the second round would trigger the start of what could be a wild offseason in Philadelphia. Until they're actually there, though, remember that this team has found ways to win in tough spots before. 

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