Most Celtics fans would be perfectly fine if these next 500 words end up being a waste of time.
The Philadelphia 76ers, for all their warts, are still a fright-inducing playoff matchup, if only because of the potential of this year’s team.
To be sure, the Sixers have never quite harnessed it.
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And one of the biggest questions during the NBA’s pause was whether this extended break could serve as a much-needed reboot button. If nothing else, the break allowed the Sixers to get healthy, particularly Ben Simmons, and now Philadelphia will get a chance to climb in the standings and avoid a prickly matchup with a No. 3 seed like Boston.
The Celtics probably wouldn’t hate that either. The Sixers won three of four regular-season matchups. That included an opening-night triumph in Philadelphia, and Joel Embiid erupting for 38 points and 13 rebounds in a December win in Boston. The Celtics dusted themselves off and bottled Embiid up while posting a lopsided win in Boston in early February (doing it while Kemba Walker was sidelined with knee issues, no less).
Philadelphia’s size and skill is still an incredibly daunting mix. The Sixers can trot out a monstrous starting 5 that features Embiid and old friend Al Horford on the back line, while still having big bodies like Simmons and Josh Richardson to send at Walker and Boston’s talented wings.
Despite all their woes, especially on the road (no longer a major concern on a neutral floor), the Sixers still had the sixth-best defensive rating in the league (two spots behind Boston) while allowing 107.6 points per 100 possessions. At home, where Philly played its most inspired ball, that number plummeted to 102.7 (only the Bucks had a better defensive rating at home at 101.6).
Philadelphia’s size really flustered Walker in this season's matchups. Boston owned a net rating of minus-17.7 in the 103 minutes that Walker was on the floor versus the Sixers. In a potential series between these teams, Walker would have to figure out ways to score when the path to the basket is clogged and his outside shot is defying him (he did have a 60-point game against Philadelphia in 2018, so he can score against this core).
In the final meeting of the season, the Celtics found success by having defenders scramble over to help Daniel Theis whenever Embiid caught the ball around the basket. But he’s undeniably a handful. Without a back line anchor, someone like Horford and/or Aron Baynes in previous seasons, the Celtics will have to be creative in defending Embiid without wandering from Philly’s shooters.
The bottom line is, even if the Sixers never find their consistency and Brett Brown is unable to get his team to focus when the games matter most, the Sixers are not going to be an easy out. And it’s certainly not the most agreeable 3-6 pairing for Boston unless the wheels really come off for Philly during the seeding games.
PREDICTIONS FOR CELTICS-SIXERS PLAYOFF SERIES
Chris Forsberg: For all the problems they present, the Sixers didn’t play good basketball consistently enough to think they can outlast one of the East’s elite. That said, they’re going to make you earn it to beat them.
There’s too much pure talent for Philadelphia not to make it a series and probably take it the distance. It’s hard to see a team that many thought had title potential (gulp, guiltily raises hands) getting bounced so early, but the Sixers put themselves in a tough spot with their pre-pause struggles.
Prediction: Celtics in 7 games
A. Sherrod Blakely: Philadelphia's decision to play Ben Simmons at power forward is a good move and certainly bodes well for the Sixers' chances for success. But Boston's defensive versatility gives them the kind of depth to withstand this adjustment. And a healthy Robert Williams III will go far in Boston’s quest to limit Joel Embiid.
Prediction: Celtics in 6 games
DJ Bean: I'll say it: This is the team in the East that scares me the most. They'd been either a mess or injured all season, yet the only thing they seemed to do consistently was beat the Celtics, thanks largely to the size discrepancy. Then again, the Sixers only faced the Celtics once after Jayson Tatum catapulted to being one of the best players in the league, and that was the lone Boston win of the season series.
Prediction: Celtics in 6 games