No.3 Boston Celtics vs. No.6 Philadelphia 76ers
Between the bad blood these teams have for each other, the impossibly weird, up and down performance of Philadelphia, Boston’s reinvention and the Al Horford departure and signing last summer, the Celtics and 76ers was the playoff matchup that was highly anticipated and seemed inevitable throughout what has been a funky, broken season.
The loss of Ben Simmons for likely the remainder of the season obviously hurts Philadelphia significantly on one end of the floor: defense. On the other, possibly not so much. But in the context of the series with Boston, it forces the 76ers to put a combination of Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle or even Shake Milton on Jayson Tatum, who despite some bubble struggles established himself as a top ten player in basketball this season. Richardson is likely the best option. He’s a good defender with his length, quickness and athleticism while providing enough shooting on the other end. That’s the downfall with someone like Thybulle, who despite putting up better offensive numbers than expected in his rookie year – 35.1 percent from three on 2.4 attempts per game – will face increased defensive pressure and a higher share of minutes this postseason. Milton will likely draw the Kemba Walker assignment, just to keep things easy and not allow Walker to get away, but is viable enough on Tatum in switching situations.
Thybulle needs to play a bigger role for Philadelphia with Simmons out, and he’s capable of it. It’s more about 76ers head coach Brett Brown – who’s job could depend on this series – needing to let Thybulle have a bigger role. He’s just an absolute force on the defensive end, which wasn’t surprising considering what he did at Washington last year. Thybulle’s switchable 1-4 and has an impeccable sense of where the ball is going – his ability to blow up passing lanes and sniff for steals is unmatched by anyone in the league, which is a statement that just shouldn’t be made about a rookie.
To replace Simmons in the new starting lineup – which was rolled out at the start of bubble play, featured Milton and benched Horford – Philly should likely pivot to Milton-Richardson-Thybulle-Tobias Harris-Embiid in crunch-time. Not once did Philly run this lineup this season, which isn’t surprising because their rotation was never as short-handed as it is now. The lineup gives Philly two crunch-time options – Embiid, whose star power we’ll address shortly, and Milton, who was given the offense’s car keys coming into the bubble. The group is also the best defensive matchup against a wing-heavy Boston team. It would pit Milton on Walker, Richardson on Tatum, Thybulle on Jaylen Brown, Harris on Gordon Hayward and Embiid on whichever big Boston trots out: Daniel Theis or Enes Kanter, which either way is a matchup Embiid should win on both ends.
Horford is still a good player – he’s in a bad situation that provides a terrible fit for his game. The cohesion offensively between him and Embiid predictably never appeared, and while he played an important role defensively, the offensive fit is just too detrimental. Per NBA.com, the Embiid-Horford has a net rating of -0.6, with a solid defensive rating of 103.1. Obviously, the offensive rating is lower than that, which is not what you want. Horford could be a great offensive option for the Sixers when Embiid’s on the bench. Like his superstar counterpart, he should be able to cash in on favorable matchups against Theis or Kanter. Don’t rule out the revenge aspect either.
Horford’s the only close call. If Philly prides itself on defense, the lineup above is the best one they can throw out there. While Furkan Korkmaz would provide a nice boost offensively, his defense is poor and you’d have to catch him on a scorching hot night to rely on him late in games.
Is the Sixers best enough? In one way, it could be.
Joel Embiid is arguably the best player in basketball when he plays his best. The only other force that is comparable is Giannis Antetokounmpo, and we’ve seen certain teams be able to tame him with the right strategy. With Embiid, there has been no stopping him. The only thing that has is himself, due to injuries and effort.
Out of the top six teams in the Eastern Conference, Boston is the best possible matchup for Embiid. It’s why as Philly’s season slowly fell apart, Boston was the playoff matchup they’d have to hope they got – it was kind of their only chance. That statement is even more true in the absence of Simmons.
This is the time for Embiid to validate himself as the type of force he has the capability of being. If Embiid plays up to his potential, then Philadelphia has the best player in the series and should win it. Thirty-plus points a night should be a given for Embiid in this series, and a couple monster games puts Philadelphia in the driver’s seat.
There’s two big IFs with that though. One, IF Embiid can actually do it, to which the answer has routinely been “no” for a multitude of reasons throughout his career so far. Two, if he can do it, what IF Tatum is even better?
Richardson is the Sixers best option for Tatum but that doesn’t mean he’s going to do the job. The difference with Tatum this season has been his assertion as a dominant No.1 scorer and a true star. The list of players he’ll go toe-to-toe with and lose to is now much smaller.
If you’re going to compare the impact of Embiid and Tatum, Tatum probably wins because of the threes he can hit. That’s just the brutality of the math. At the same time, Embiid scoring on 60-70 percent of his touches probably cancels that out, which would be the result of the monster games mentioned above. But Embiid would have to put together one of the most dominant series of all time from a big man, and even though expectations should be set high for Embiid, that is unrealistic for anyone.
A massive Embiid series could still not be enough for the Sixers. His greatness has to be supported. Unfortunately, Boston just wins the firepower/math battle in this series. Each of Walker, Brown, Tatum and Hayward are all better than any key Sixers player from deep (Korkmaz doesn’t get credit as being “key” here).
It creates a real challenge for Philly. What do you do? Focus your efforts on stopping Tatum and let Walker (Who is really a bad matchup for the Sixers… Milton has the length, but Walker’s small size and craftiness is a tough guard for Philly. Swallowing someone with length doesn’t always work), Brown and Hayward make up the points and firepower? Or do you focus on everyone else, let Tatum cook and hope Embiid can outplay or match him?
Embiid will have to be extraordinary for Philly to win this series. The odds of him being special should be cautiously set – he has the chance to be so. But we’ve just never seen him put everything together yet, and if it doesn’t happen soon, it’s fair to wonder if it ever will.
Prediction: Celtics in 6