For the second time in three seasons, the Boston Celtics’ and Philadelphia 76ers’ respective postseason paths will intersect with one another. The last time the two teams met up in the playoffs, a Kyrie Irving-less Boston put the clamps on a promising young Philly bunch to win in five games during the 2018 conference semifinals.
A whole lot has happened in that time — including an integral part of that Celtics team moving to the City of Brotherly Love — but the expectations are as high as ever. The two teams are awfully familiar with one another, and even if Boston has been something of a surprise while Philly has disappointed during the 2019-20 campaign, both have their sights set on this being merely one hurdle en route to a conference finals cameo.
These two teams are as familiar with one another as any squads in the league, and as such, x-factors might not be as impactful here as they will be in another series. Still, there are areas that could very well tilt this one way or another for the two teams if all goes right.
Boston Celtics: Their two young stars keeping it up
The Sixers, for all of their issues, are the only team to beat Boston three times this season. In those losses, both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have struggled. Brown, in those games, has scored 7.3 points on 29.6 percent shooting from the field, while Tatum’s at 17 points on 32.1 percent shooting. The Celtics have been outscored by 12 points in the 31.9 minutes the former played in those games and 5.7 points in the 35.6 minutes the latter played.
Now, there is a lot of extra context that should be added here. Ben Simmons, of course, is out, and he’s been Philly’s main defender against Tatum. Both played quite well in the fourth matchup between the two squads, a Celtics win. And both have been very, very good in the Bubble, with Boston going 5-2 in the games they’ve played and the duo combining to average 42 points and 12.5 rebounds per game while connecting on 41.5 percent of their threes.
The lineup the Sixers will likely rely on the most without Simmons — Shake Milton, Richardson, Tobias Harris, Horford, and Embiid — doesn’t really have someone who is a no-brainer option to check Tatum and has generally struggled defensively, as it’s in the ninth percentile of points per 100 possessions allowed, per Cleaning the Glass. Philly can play the Matisse Thybulle card, which it certainly will in spots, but that’s a huge ask for a rookie over a seven-game series.
The Sixers will throw everything they have at these two. There’s a chance it does not matter if they keep up the play we’ve seen during the Bubble, even if Philly has given them fits at times this year.
Philadelphia 76ers: Can they survive the Joel Embiid-less minutes?
When the Sixers poached Al Horford from the Celtics this past offseason (which, of course, means 13.5 months ago), part of the logic was that they needed someone to stem the tide when Embiid wasn’t on the floor. That’s been up-and-down during the regular season — unsurprisingly, they’re better when he plays — but this will be especially gigantic during the playoffs. Think of last year’s Game 7 against the Toronto Raptors, when Philadelphia outscored Toronto by 10 points in the 45:12 that Embiid played but lost because they were outscored by 12 in the 2:48 he sat.
Embiid has to be the best player on the floor against Boston if the Sixers are going to stand a chance, something that is magnified by Simmons’ absence. He has it in him to do that, although he’s been all over the place against the Celtics this year. Embiid was magnificent in the team’s win in Beantown, ok during their win in Philly, and absolutely putrid in their loss in their most recent matchup.
Having said this, Embiid needs breaks, as would any human of his size who plays basketball. This means that there will be a whole lot of minutes where the Sixers roll out lineups without either of their two All-Stars, which have been up-and-down all season. Brett Brown will have to do a ton of tinkering to figure out exactly which one works best on a given evening, but it is reasonable to expect that the team will need its big-money offseason signings to come up huge while Embiid catches his breath.
Philadelphia is in a weird spot where they’ve played 73 games this season but no one can totally articulate exactly what they are as a basketball team, ostensibly because somewhere in the NBA’s bylaws, it is explicitly stated that the Sixers need to be the most bizarre team in basketball on an annual basis. But we can say with some reasonable amount of certainty that two things are true: 1. Embiid is going to be at the center of everything they do and, 2. They have a chance to beat the Celtics if they can stay afloat when that’s not the case.