Boston Celtics

2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

2020 NBA playoffs: Looking at where Sixers sit in Eastern Conference picture

Though they’re calling “seeding games,” the Sixers’ primary concern in the contests leading up to the playoffs is not seeding.

“How do you go into the playoffs … how can you go into that date feeling like we’re the best we can be?” Brett Brown said on July 12. “Worrying too much about moving up because you could play this team or avoid that team, I stay away from that.” 

Through three games at Disney World, Brown wishes the Sixers were playing at a higher level. The team has gone 2-1, but that record includes a fourth quarter in which the Sixers allowed the Pacers to score 46 points, a game-saving shot from Shake Milton vs. the Spurs and a win over the 24-44 Wizards that was tight until the end. Ben Simmons exited Wednesday’s game against Washington early with a left knee injury

It’s been slower coming than I would’ve thought,” Brown said Wednesday. “I liked our practices, I thought … the preseason games you saw at times a dominant defense. We’ve started these three games, I think, very inconsistently. I think we do some good things offensively, defensively, and then you see head-scratching stuff. It hasn’t gone as quickly as I had hoped. But I see where I think it can end. 

“We’re still figuring out some things with how we’re playing the team and Shake (Milton) coming in and so on. But I think, for the most part, we’re trending in the right direction, just not as quickly as I wished.

Here's where the Sixers sit in the Eastern Conference: 

3. Boston Celtics 45-23 GB: 9 
4. Miami Heat 43-25 GB: 11
5. Indiana Pacers 42-26 GB: 12
6. Sixers 41-27 GB: 13 

Boston technically still has a chance to surpass the Raptors for the No. 2 seed and the Sixers aren’t eliminated from contention for the No. 3 seed, but both outcomes are very improbable. Kemba Walker sat out the latter half of a back-to-back Wednesday, a 149-115 Celtics win over the Nets, as the All-Star guard works through a left knee issue. After playing Toronto on Friday night, the Celtics will face Orlando, Memphis and Washington.

The current No. 4 and No. 5 seeds play each other twice in the remaining seeding games, which should be interesting. The Heat’s other opponents are the Bucks, Suns and Thunder, while the Pacers’ are the Suns, Lakers and Rockets. Before the NBA’s hiatus, Miami was 2-0 against Indiana. In case you were curious, T.J. Warren hasn’t dropped off much after his 53-point performance vs. the Sixers. He leads all scorers at Disney World with 39.7 points per game. 

Despite having the sixth-easiest strength of schedule, the Sixers don’t have great odds of rising. Basketball Reference’s Playoff Probabilities Report gives them a 72.8 percent chance at the No. 6 seed, 23.0 percent at No. 5 and just 4.1 percent at No. 4. Those probabilities are intuitive when you consider the Sixers have lost their season series vs. the Heat and Pacers. 

The Celtics are the Sixers’ most likely first-round opponent at the moment by a good margin, which would potentially leave the Sixers a path of Boston-Toronto-Milwaukee. One could make the argument that such a road is best for the Sixers, since the team won its season series over Boston, 3-1, and wouldn’t have to face the top-seeded Bucks until the Eastern Conference Finals, but nothing’s going to be easy for a No. 6 seed. 

We analyzed the Celtics, Heat and Pacers as possible first-round opponents for the Sixers here

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Why the 1980s Celtics are the ultimate Sixers Villains

Why the 1980s Celtics are the ultimate Sixers Villains

All week at NBC Sports Philadelphia, we're debating the biggest villains in Philly sports history. Today, we look at the Sixers. You can vote here

I have to be honest: Writing this was painful. Peeling back the layers of Sixers villainy was like stubbing your toe against your bedpost while pouring hot sauce in your eye. Not fun. 

Staring down the terror that was the '80s Celtics, the genesis of my personal childhood sports hatred, was twice as bad.

Maybe it was those stupid green uniforms or their overbearing history and mystique? Maybe it was the fact the two blue-collar cities, Philly and Boston, share a lot of similarities? Even simpler, these guys were plain good — oftentimes just as good, if not better than the Sixers — and that's where the angst and apprehension begins. 

The disdain reached a crescendo in 1981. See, in the early '80s, the Sixers were close to being the Buffalo Bills of the NBA — always the bridesmaid, never the bride. When the franchise finally won it all in 1983, it was their fourth trip to the Finals since 1977. 

Now, in 1981, the Sixers were again heavy favorites to win the East and played like it, jumping out to a 3-1 lead against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston pulled off the improbable and won three straight games by a total of five points. The Celtics won the series and went on to win the NBA title in 1981 before the uber-talented Sixers could deliver in the big game. 

In fact, when you take the 30,000-foot view of '80s NBA basketball, the SIxers' 1983 title was a glorious, long overdue sweep of the breathtaking Showtime Lakers, but in actuality, it amounted to just a blip between the eight combined titles the Lakers and Celtics won during the decade.

This comparison against the '80s Celtics is a lot less a rivalry and much more an inferiority complex. The Sixers just weren't as good as Boston. They wanted to be and flat-out should have been, but they were not. Philly had arguably the best player on the planet in Julius Erving but couldn't break through until Moses Malone gave them the extra presence they needed in 1983. 

History tells us that surrounding stars with the proper supporting cast hasn't been an organizational strong suit for the Sixers. Meanwhile, the Celtics drafted Larry Bird and he led them to three titles in seven seasons. 

All the same, this matchup had some all-time storylines. I didn't even mention the myriad fist fights between the teams, Dr. J pummeling Bird with his hand clasped around his throat, the “Beat L.A.” chants or the player with one of the greatest nicknames in sports — “The Boston Strangler," aka Andrew Toney. 

Hating the Celtics was once a pseudo-birthright for Philly sports fans. After all the emotion this article stirred up, I think I need to go talk to my son and daughter to make sure their sports hatred is in the rightful place.

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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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