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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