The Sixers beat the Celtics three out of four times in the regular season, so the conventional wisdom suggests that Brett Brown should try everything in his power to engineer a first-round matchup with Boston.
He could even rest some starters and drop a couple winnable seeding games in Orlando in hopes of finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference.
Then you get Boston in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 first-round series and avoid top-seeded Milwaukee until the Eastern Conference Finals.
Nice theory, right?
Well, I’m here to tell you it’s totally wrong.
Instead of an early date with Boston, the Sixers should be angling to end up in a 4 vs. 5 series against their old buddy Jimmy Butler and the Heat.
But wait, didn’t the Sixers lose the season series to Miami, 3-1?
Indeed, they did.
But the thing is, the playoffs are not the regular season. And this Miami team is very young and not playoff-tested.
After Jimmy Butler, many of their other rotation players have little to no postseason experience. Bam Adebayo has played five playoff games. Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson will all be making their playoff debuts.
Miami lives on those young guys making threes to space the floor for Butler and Adebayo. We’ll see if those shots fall in their first playoff series.
As for Miami’s recent additions, Jae Crowder brings toughness and veteran savvy, but there’s also a reason he’s on his fourth team in the last three seasons. Expecting him to be a playoff difference-maker is asking a lot.
Andre Iguodala obviously became a playoff legend with the Warriors. He’s also 36 years old and has averaged 4.4 points in 14 games since joining the Heat. Maybe Erik Spoelstra is just saving Iguodala for big moments in the playoffs. I’ll take my chances.
Also, while you may think that Joel Embiid matches up great with Boston, the truth is that his numbers were significantly better against Miami. In four games against the Heat this season, Embiid averaged 27.3 points and shot 56.3 percent from the field.
It makes sense. The 6-foot-9 Adebayo is simply too small to deal with Embiid. Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk are too slow.
Embiid’s stats against Boston? 21.3 points per game and 39.1 percent shooting from the field. He had one monster game against the Celtics (38 points on 12 for 21 shooting) and one awful game (11 points on 1 of 11 shooting).
Boston is also simply a more complete team than Miami, with a plus-6.2 point differential per game compared to plus-3.3 for the Heat. The Celtics have three players who average at least 20 points per game (Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown) and another in Gordon Hayward who’s capable of going for 20 on any given night. That’s a lot more firepower than Miami brings to the table.
Also, Tatum emerged as one of the NBA’s best scorers in the last two months before the COVID-19 shutdown, averaging 27.9 points on 48.8 shooting from the field and 45.5 percent shooting from three-point range. His becoming an efficient, volume scorer makes defending the Celtics much more difficult.
If you don’t double him, he goes off. If you double him, the Celtics have scorers all over the floor. And unlike Miami, those guys have extensive playoff experience.
The Sixers certainly could beat the Celtics in a playoff series. I wouldn’t be shocked. Playing Kemba Walker against Philadelphia’s big lineups exposes Boston defensively and maybe Embiid just goes off against Boston’s duo of Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter.
But Boston is going to be an extremely tough out. They can score, they can defend and Tatum’s transformation into a go-to guy gives them another dimension. Marcus Smart is one of the best defenders in the league, regardless of position. Many of those guys have been through the playoff wars.
Unlike the previous two seasons, the Sixers won’t have an easy first-round playoff opponent this year. Miami would certainly be formidable. Butler would be a problem. But I’ll take my chances against that young Heat squad over a Boston team with better scorers and more playoff experience.
I think Miami, Milwaukee and the Boston/Toronto winner presents an easier path to reach the NBA Finals than having to beat Boston, Toronto and Milwaukee.
You’ve got to beat the Bucks either way. But you can’t beat the Bucks unless you make it to that series.
Survive and advance.
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