2020 NBA playoffs: Which 1st-round opponent would be best matchup for Sixers?

2020 NBA playoffs: Which 1st-round opponent would be best matchup for Sixers?

If the NBA’s Disney World quasi-bubble concept goes ahead as planned and the season resumes with eight “seeding games,” the Sixers have three likely potential first-round playoff opponents: the Celtics, Pacers and Heat. Which matchup would be best for them?

Going strictly off regular-season performance, the answer would be Boston, since the Sixers won their season series over the Celtics for the first time since the 2013-14 campaign.

There isn’t necessarily one coherent theme from the Sixers’ wins over the Celtics. Their defense was strong on Opening Night and Kemba Walker had a cold shooting performance, hitting just 4 of 18 shots and struggling against Matisse Thybulle and Josh Richardson. Joel Embiid had perhaps his best game of the season on Dec. 12, posting 38 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Al Horford and Richardson were strong with Embiid sidelined by a torn ligament in his left ring finger on Jan. 9. 

Simmons’ ability to break free in the open court would likely be crucial in a playoff series. The NBA’s leader in steals averaged 18.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists against Boston, and he was one of several defenders who fared well against Jayson Tatum. A first-time All-Star, Tatum shot 24 for 72 against the Sixers (33.3 percent) and 5 for 16 when guarded by Simmons (31.3 percent). 

When the Sixers fell to Boston in the second round two years ago, Simmons’ limitations in the half court were somewhat problematic as the Celtics sagged off and blocked his path to the paint. Though there are ways to address that, including using Simmons more often as a screener and roller, his speed and athletic talents can bypass everything. 

The more Simmons can transition from deflecting passes like a free safety to tossing no-look assists, the better. 

Against Boston, it would help for Brett Brown and the Sixers to have intelligent wrinkles and adjustments ready to go, since both teams know each other so well. Savvy improvisations wouldn’t hurt either. 

The Celtics seemed caught off guard by this look on Jan. 9, as it first appeared Furkan Korkmaz was going to curl up to the wing off a Horford down screen. Instead, Horford sprinted up and, shielded by a Tobias Harris screen, drained a three. 

Jimmy Butler would be the center of attention in a Sixers-Heat series, the comic book villain with a devilish smile, but he’s far from Miami’s only playmaker.

The Heat would surely throw a healthy volume of pick-and-rolls at the Sixers, who’d need to have well-defined principles for each look and each ball handler. On the play below, the Sixers “ice” the pick-and-roll with the corner filled, shading Kendrick Nunn toward the baseline. Horford fails to track the rolling Meyers Leonard, but Embiid rotates over and eliminates any problem. 

On this next sequence, All-Star big man Bam Adebayo and Leonard form a sort of wall at the top of the key. The Sixers are clearly prepared for this slow-developing action, but their coverage is nevertheless ineffective.

You can see the plan is for Horford to hedge and Embiid to drop. To Butler, though, Horford’s hedge is like the sound of a phone alarm for a sleep-deprived teenager. He’s aware of it but has no problem hitting snooze, driving into the paint and putting pressure on the Sixers’ defense. 

Finally, we move to Indiana, an opponent with two 6-foot-11 starters in Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. 

Theoretically, the Pacers having a very large frontcourt should be favorable to Horford. Another factor to consider with Indiana’s size is that Harris has to match up against wings like T.J. Warren. That's not a novel challenge for Harris, who's had his perimeter defense tested often this year when playing as a small forward next to Embiid and Horford. 

He had mixed results against the Pacers. On Nov. 30 and Jan. 13, Indiana players shot 10 of 26 when defended by Harris. On New Year’s Eve, when the Sixers were blown out without Embiid, they were 8 for 8 against him. 

This next play is a solid example of what Harris would have to do in the postseason vs. the Pacers. Warren makes a zipper cut through the middle of the floor, rubbing off Turner at the nail. Though Harris falls a half-step back, he stays with the play and contests from behind. 

In their two losses to the Pacers, the Sixers had their worst three-point shooting effort of the season (Jan. 13) and fifth-worst (New Year’s Eve). They shot 12 of 62 from long range in those games. 

When Simmons drives and hits the open man, he has to make it. Not all the time, of course, but certainly at a better rate than 19.4 percent if the Sixers would want to beat Indiana in a series. 

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Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

Sixers vs. Spurs: 3 storylines to watch and how to stream the game

The Sixers (39-27) and Spurs (29-36) will meet Monday over eight months after their first matchup this season, a 115-104 Sixers win on Nov. 22. It’s technically a home game for the Sixers, the team’s first since March 11. They were 29-2 at Wells Fargo Center. 

Mike Scott (right knee soreness) is out and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) is doubtful.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 8 p.m. ET with Sixers Pregame Live at 7 
Where: Visa Athletic Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

An outlier opener? 

In several ways, Saturday’s defeat to the Pacers wasn’t like most for the Sixers this season.

The team outscored Indiana by a point in nine Joel Embiid-Al Horford minutes but saw their 10-point fourth-quarter lead evaporate when Horford stepped in at center, the opposite of the trend this year. The starting backcourt combined for four points on five field goal attempts. Turnover problems that had characterized seasons past resurfaced as the Sixers gave it away 14 times in the first half and 21 times in the game. They’d been 10th in turnovers (14.2 per game) before the hiatus. Ben Simmons’ defense was not anywhere close to as great as it’s been for much of the season. 

A loss is a loss, but perhaps the Sixers on Monday will look more like the team we saw in their first 65 games. 

Another size disparity 

Jakob Poeltl is the only traditional frontcourt player in San Antonio’s starting lineup, which means the Sixers will again have plenty of size advantages. With LaMarcus Aldridge out for the season after right shoulder surgery, DeMar DeRozan is the Spurs’ second-tallest starter at 6-foot-6. Shake Milton and Josh Richardson are the Sixers’ shortest starters at 6-5. 

The Spurs have opened well at Disney World, winning their first two games and moving into ninth in the Western Conference, but the Sixers will present a unique challenge. 

'Walking that line'

Brett Brown doesn’t generally have an endless level of patience with younger players. He’s sometimes quick to pull the plug when they make mistakes or have trouble adjusting to a new situation.

Following Milton’s poor first game in the new starting lineup (no points, three assists, three turnovers, five fouls), it will be interesting to see Brown’s approach if Milton struggles again early. 

“The tolerance level … whether it’s trying to persevere and grow Shake, whether it’s the distribution of how you actually use Ben Simmons, all of those things are always on my mind,” he said Sunday. “It’s the launching pad that we have now where you’ve got some games before you enter the playoffs. And life moves quickly where you get stuck in this current where you’re going to blink and the playoffs are going to be right at your doorstep. 

“Walking that line of persevering and patience vs. gut feel — you like it or you don’t — that ecosystem is my job.”

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Brett Brown's approach with Al Horford-Joel Embiid minutes, Alec Burks' 'lightning in a bottle' role, more on Sixers

Brett Brown's approach with Al Horford-Joel Embiid minutes, Alec Burks' 'lightning in a bottle' role, more on Sixers

Updated: 5:37 p.m. 

Brett Brown said in May that he hopes to play Joel Embiid approximately 38 minutes per game in the playoffs, a figure he’s since admitted is “probably ambitious” but nevertheless doubled down on. 

The Sixers may have won if Embiid had hit that mark in their first seeding game Saturday night, based on how well he performed and how much the team struggled when he was off the floor. Embiid was plus-21 in 34 minutes and had 41 points and 21 rebounds in the Sixers’ 127-121 loss to the Pacers. A 10-point lead when Embiid exited with 8:38 remaining in the game was a two-point deficit by the time he returned with 5:04 to go.

Al Horford had 10 points and six rebounds in 23 minutes and was a minus-26. In a departure from the norm, the Sixers managed to tread water in the time Embiid and Horford were together (plus-1 in nine minutes) thanks to a combination of fruitful Embiid bully ball and Horford converting a couple of open jumpers in the third quarter. They struggled, however, with Horford at center. Brown employed his original frontcourt this year for stints at the end of the first three quarters, but not at all in the fourth. 

What factored into his decision-making? He explained Sunday that he still considers his usage of the Embiid-Horford pairing to be mostly driven by matchups. It seems he’ll be more inclined to close games with Horford against larger teams that don’t put as great a strain on the 34-year-old’s perimeter defense. Not many teams have lumbering power forwards in the modern NBA, of course, but the Pacers were especially small and quick with All-Star Domantas Sabonis sidelined by plantar fasciitis. 

I just go straight to, ‘Are we going to be able to chase?’” Brown said. “For instance, last night you’re playing against a bunch of track stars. T.J. Warren at that point (of the fourth quarter) had 40 (points) or thereabouts, and it’s, what are you going to do to chase those Holiday brothers and T.J. Warren? To give you a categoric, organic answer of ‘This is Joel and Al Horford’s world,’ I can’t. … It’s who we’re playing, what is the situation? 

“You did see a little bit of Ben (Simmons), Al and Joel, and we still gave Shake (Milton) the ball on not many but some possessions last night. Shake got in foul trouble and things started to happen a little bit differently than was planned. … You’ve gotta go with the situation and make a decision.

‘Lightning in a bottle’ 

Brown had a rather high appraisal of Alec Burks’ work in his 12 minutes against Indiana. Burks did commit four of the Sixers’ 21 turnovers, but he also provided nine points, three fewer than Milton, Josh Richardson, Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle and Raul Neto combined. 

“It’s always a defensive thing,” Brown said. “He came in, I thought he played, he looked cocky. He had the ball at times. We ran him as a two off screens. I thought he looked good. And then you get into, you’ve got to stop the Holiday brothers. T.J. Warren. … So Alec, I thought his defense was pretty good. He did have a few turnovers, like a lot of us had, just kind of careless passes to an elbow or trying to go behind-the-back pocket pass out of the pick-and-roll. 

“I feel like Alec had a really good seven or eight days in camp. I thought last night he looked good, he scored, and it’s always on my mind to try to continue to grow his role as it relates to lightning in a bottle, somebody that can come in and just get buckets quickly, especially as it relates to a playoff environment.”

Teammates call Burks “Buckets,” so this is clearly not a foreign role for him. 

Of note in the ever-evolving competition for playoff minutes on the Sixers’ bench: Glenn Robinson III participated in practice but is doubtful for Monday's game vs. the Spurs with the left hip pointer injury that sidelined him Saturday. Mike Scott will miss a second straight game with right knee soreness. 

Pushing the message 

Milton chose not to focus on basketball the day after a challenging night on the court.

He wanted to talk about racial injustice instead. 

I came out here to just say that to anybody who is out here watching me, listening to me, keep fighting and keep putting the word out about what’s going on,” he said. “Don’t let up. The iron right now is hot about what’s going on in this country, the racial injustices that are happening, so keep fighting and keep putting that word out. I just want to say to Breonna Taylor’s family that we are sorry that it has taken so long, and we know (Kentucky attorney general) Daniel Cameron has the power, so we need to keep pushing to keep making his seat hot, for him to make a decision. 

“Also, I want to say rest in peace to Breonna Taylor, rest in peace to Ahmaud Arbery, rest in peace to Kalief Browder, as well. That’s all I have to say.

Tobias Harris, Mike Scott and many other NBA players have also called on Cameron to take action in the case of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black emergency room technician killed on March 13 in Louisville. 

Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot to death on Feb. 23 in Savannah, Georgia. Browder died by suicide at age 22 after spending three years at Rikers Island in New York for a case that never went to trial. 

The Sixers protested Saturday by kneeling during the national anthem, and Milton said the team is working on further plans. 

“… Hopefully, along with educating people and putting that message out there, we are going to give people tangible things that they can do for action to make change in the communities where they’re at,” he said. 

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