The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — maybe the closest thing to a rivalry in an ever-changing Eastern Conference — will joust in the opening round of the bubble playoffs starting next week in Orlando.
This is not your typical 3-6 matchup and the Sixers are the wildest of wildcards.
After luring Al Horford down Interstate-95 last summer, Philadelphia was anointed a title contender based solely on its accumulation of talent, and even Celtics fans fretted over the Sixers’ potential. Philadelphia, however, has underwhelmed throughout the 2019-20 (not-so) regular season and injury woes have thwarted any hopes that the bubble might serve as a much-needed reset button.
Now, with Ben Simmons sidelined for the postseason after knee surgery and Joel Embiid back after a minor ankle injury, the Sixers find themselves limping into the playoffs with decidedly less swagger than they oozed entering a hope-filled season.
There is a case to be made that, as TJ Warren catches fire in the bubble and the Miami Heat play their typical brand of gritty ball, Philadelphia was the best possible draw for Boston.
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But this series is not without concerns. Even at the height of their pre-quarantine struggles, the Sixers have been a rather undesirable foe if only because Boston has struggled so mightily against their size. The injury to Simmons, combined with Philadelphia’s inability to find its groove, has simply made the matchup more palpable than it might have previously seemed only weeks ago.
While the Sixers are left hoping they can improbably find their missing magic inside Mickey’s kingdom, the Celtics have watched just about everything fall into place for them.
Kemba Walker, slowly shedding a minutes restriction, has played at the All-Star level he displayed when he first arrived in Boston; Jayson Tatum is making the calendar look like it’s February again; Jaylen Brown might be Boston’s most consistent two-way player inside the bubble; Gordon Hayward and his mystical mustache have been a luxury of a fourth option; and Marcus Smart is doing all the usual Marcus Smart things. Boston is healthy for pretty much the first time all season and even their much-scrutinized bench seems to have found a bit of a groove in the ramp to the postseason.
All of which should seemingly leave Boston in the driver’s seat in this series. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects Boston with a 72 percent chance to advance and is more bullish on a Boston sweep (13 percent chance) than Philly grinding out a seven-game victory (11 percent).
There’s still a lot of questions for the Celtics to answer in Round 1 that will dictate whether this series is as breezy as the numbers might suggest. Remember, too, that Philadelphia won the season series 3-1. This won’t come easy.
How does Walker’s balky knee respond to the grind of playoff basketball? Can Tatum and Brown not only maintain their high level of play but ratchet up their contributions like they’ve done as the focal points in previous postseasons?
Here are the three biggest questions on our mind as we brace for the start of the series:
Which Embiid shows up this series? And how the heck do Celtics defend him?
Despite all their question marks, the Sixers might have the best player on the court in this series and that can never be discounted.
Will we see the Embiid who stomped into Boston in December and put up 38 points and 13 rebounds after pundits questioned his superstardom? Or can the Celtics blitz him with extra bodies and quiet Embiid like they did in early February during a lopsided win at TD Garden?
Daniel Theis and Co. have struggled against beefier bigs inside the bubble and Celtics coach Brad Stevens will have to earn that new extension by finding creative ways to take some stress off his undersized bigs. If Embiid plays to his potential, the Sixers can make this a dogfight. If Simmons’ absence allows the Celtics to really hone in on Embiid, it puts an awful lot of stress on Philly’s supporting cast.
How much will Simmons’ absence be felt in the series?
Losing an All-Star is never ideal.
But the 76ers had a team-high net rating of plus-16.4 in the 44 minutes that Ben Simmons was off the floor against the Celtics this season. That’s a surprisingly high number and one that made us wonder if it was simply a small sample size at play.
But when we zoom in on the 28 minutes that Embiid played without Simmons in those four games against Boston, Philadelphia’s net rating actually spiked all the way to plus-24.8 with a defensive rating of 78.9 over that span. Again -- small sample -- but it seems to suggest that Philadelphia can not only survive Simmons’ absence, but thrive at times without him.
The question is whether that can bear itself out over a series. Simmons’ absence, however, puts a lot of pressure on Shake Milton to confidently run the point and create offensive chances for a team that doesn’t have nearly as much perimeter shooting at it did in previous years. Can the 23-year-old quarterback an offense that has rarely found its groove?
Will Philadelphia’s size and length disrupt Boston’s offense?
Boston’s offensive rating against the Sixers this season was an underwhelming 106.9, dipping to 103.1 in Boston's three losses. The Celtics shot 43.3 percent overall against Philadelphia and a mere 32.5 percent beyond the 3-point arc. Why so much trouble?
Not only do the Sixers make things difficult around the basket (Boston shot a gruesome 40.5 percent inside the paint) but they also have tall, long-armed defenders on the perimeter who make it difficult to generate sustained ball movement and will contest most shots. There will be few easy looks if the Celtics can’t get the ball popping around the floor like they showed the ability to do during the latter half of seeding games.
And what happens on nights when shots simply aren’t falling? Walker, in particular, struggled to finish around the basket due to Philly’s size. Boston has to find a way to either score more consistently around the hoop, or at least get to the foul line more frequently. The Sixers will roll out a whole bunch of long defenders (Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle) who will make Boston work for decent looks.
The bottom line is that Philadelphia poses obvious problems for Boston, but the absence of Simmons makes it harder to see how the Sixers find the consistency that has evaded them all season. While not the most ideal matchup, it’s about as good of a draw as Boston could have hoped given the options.
If the Celtics play like they did at the tail end of their seeding games, they will win the series. If they let Embiid and the Sixers get some confidence, and if Horford plays with some additional motivation against his former team, it could get a bit more interesting.