The regular season has ended. The bubble seeding games have come to an end. The NBA playoffs are set to begin tomorrow. The six seeded Philadelphia 76ers will be matched up with the third seeded Boston Celtics. There is a lot to unpack here for the 76ers.
History and the Current Picture
There is history in this series. The 76ers faced the Celtics in the second round of the 2018 playoffs. They were dispatched in five games. The Sixers were young. It was the first taste of playoff experience for that iteration of the Sixers. While it was just two seasons ago, so much has changed since then for the Sixers organization. Front office shuffling, acquiring of all stars, roster shuffling and playoff heartbreak have hardened this 76ers team. In those 2018 playoffs, the Celtics threw Al Horford at Joel Embiid and Horford gave Embiid fits on the offensive end. The veteran held Embiid to 23 ppg on 44% shooting. However, as mentioned, a lot has changed.
Horford is now a member of the 76ers. Horford gives the Sixers an edge in more ways than just one. First, as a former member (and leader) of the Celtics, he can give the Sixers a tactical edge due to his knowledge of Brad Stevens sets (offensively and defensively). Secondly, just having him away from the Celtics, and therefore, no longer an opposition to Joel Embiid is a plus. Finally, it’s said by many that Horford’s play improves in the playoffs. Defense matters and the mental aspect of basketball becomes that much more important in these games. Specifically in this series, having Horford is definitely a plus for the Sixers.
However, with that positive, there is also a negative. Ben Simmons is out. If Simmons absence and the versatility he brings offensively and defensively, is going to be felt, this may be the series it’s felt the most. The Celtics sport a quadruplet scoring threat of Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum. Ben Simmons can defend 1-4 against most teams. His absence leaves the team with a hole that cannot be filled by just one player. One player who will be tasked with making up for Simmons absence is Josh Richardson. Richardson will be very important to the Sixers plans defensively as he will likely be tasked with guarding Kemba Walker, who is nursing a knee injury.
For this series, the best player on the court will undoubtedly be Joel Embiid. Without Ben Simmons, he will be the crown jewel (offensively and defensively). He will mainly be matched up on Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. These are matchups Embiid should feast on. No big on the Celtics roster can guard Embiid in the low post. He has to be locked in on both ends. The offense will be ran through him and the ball will be in his hands. This is where Embiid has the chance to cement himself as a truly dominant force in the NBA.
Defensive and Offensive X-Factor(s)
The Sixers are shorthanded and if they are going to have any chance in this series, two players are going to have to step up: Matisse Thybulle and Tobias Harris.
Rookie Matisse Thybulle, like every rookie and every player in these uncertain times is experiencing an unprecedented NBA season. With the current circumstances of both the NBA and the 76ers specifically, Thybulle is being forced to grow up in a hurry. Ben Simmons is the 76ers best defender when healthy and he typically guards opposing team’s best offensive weapons, however, with him out that responsibility will seemingly now shift to Thybulle. As a rookie, Thybulle has already established himself as one of the league’s premier defenders, averaging 1.4 steals, 2.6 deflections and 0.7 blocks.
Thybulle ranks 79th of 529 players in defensive win shares, per (https://www.basketball-reference.com/leagues/NBA_2020_advanced.html). Thybulle is the only rookie to rank in the top 80. In the playoffs, defense is what matters the most. And in this series, the Celtics most offensively gifted players are their wings and guards. Therefore, I believe that it would be paramount for the Sixers to start Thybulle at the two guard spot, move Josh Richardson to the three and Tobias Harris to the power forward position. Al Horford would be used to spell Embiid in this instance, instead of having him attempting to guard Jayson Tatum (which he is capable of) or Jaylen Brown on the perimeter.
As stated, the second X-Factor for the Sixers to be successful in this series will be Tobias Harris. Harris has shifted into the second option on offense with Ben Simmons out. Harris has been consistent in the NBA’s return to play averaging, 21.7 points and 7.9 rebounds along with 41.2% shooting from three. Harris will have to rekindle the play style he put on display during his time with the Clippers that led the Sixers to acquire him. Harris ability to create for himself in iso situations or get to the rim and along with that, to the foul line will be paramount if the Sixers are going to have success in this series. Harris’ use as a floor spacer so Joel Embiid can have room to operate will also be a big factor in this series. Altogether, Harris will be depended upon heavily and he will have to produce if the Sixers are to be successful in this series.
The Brett Brown factor
Brett Brown vs Brad Stevens. Oh boy.
In this series, adjustments will undoubtedly, be of the utmost importance. Being stubborn about changing a defensive coverage, failing to call a time-out when the opposing team goes on a (18-3) run or going away from a player who isn’t contributing will not cut it in a series like this for Brett Brown. With the skillset of the wings and guards of the Celtics, playing and shifting into the right defensive coverages against the pick and roll will be extremely important. Offensively, the key here is to simply play to and coach to your players strengths. Whether that be, getting Shake Milton more pick and roll sets with Joel Embiid or finding ways to get Josh Richardson open looks, Brown has to be creative with his ideas and sets on offense.
In the playoffs, rotations shrink. For Brett Brown, the head coach was quoted back in February (per NBC Sports Philadelphia), saying he’d like the postseason rotation down to about nine players. In my opinion, eight of those players should be:
- PG: Shake Milton/Alec Burks
- SG: Matisse Thybulle/Josh Richardson
- SF: Josh Richardson/Glenn Robinson III
- PF: Tobias Harris
- Joel Embiid/Al Horford
The ninth spot should be a toss up between Mike Scott and Furkan Korkmaz. Remember the point about going away from a player who isn’t contributing, this is where that comes into play. If the Sixers are going to be successful, one of the main keys to that will be the team’s ability to make shots. Specifically, the 3 ball. Mike Scott has shown the ability to get hot from behind the arc, and he has playoff experience. Similarly, Furkan Korkmaz has shown the ability to get hot from behind the arc, however he has yet to put this ability on display in the postseason. As stated, in the playoffs, defense matters most and this is where Korkmaz could struggle. His ability or lack thereof, to stay in front of the Celtics wings and guards may be what removes him from the rotation.
Along with going away from a player who isn’t contributing is the inverse of staying with a player who is hitting shots. If a player comes in off the bench and he is contributing more than a player in the starting lineup, you stay with that guy. The guy I am referencing here is Alec Burks, who’s play in the seeding games has cemented his role as the first or second man off the bench with the Sixers. Averaging 14.5 points on 57% shooting from 3 in the NBA’s return to play, his contributions from the bench will be needed.
What it Comes Down to
Every key to success for the Sixers I’ve mentioned in this article can be summed up in one cliché: team basketball. The absence of Ben Simmons will make it that much harder for the Sixers. Every player who steps on the court will have to contribute. Make no mistake about it, Embiid will get the ball and have the leeway to operate in the post or on the wing in iso sets and Boston will bring double teams. This is where the cliché comes into effect. The players around Embiid will have to hit their shots. Outside of Embiid dominating offensively, the Sixers making their shots will be what this series comes down to.
For the Sixers there is a lot at stake here. It has been reported by a few Philadelphia area reporters that if the Sixers do go on to lose this series (or don’t make the Eastern Conference Finals), it will be the end of the Brett Brown era in Philadelphia. For Joel Embiid, it is his chance to show the world how truly, dominant he is. Tobias Harris will get the chance to live up to his $180 million contract as the second option on a championship contending team. Al Horford will have the chance to, not only get revenge against his former team who reportedly didn’t think Horford was worth the amount of money he was asking for (I agree), but also silence his doubters (myself included). A lot is at stake.
The 76ers took the season series against the Celtics 3-1. A lot has changed since those games. Besides the whole global pandemic thing (WEAR YOUR MASK) and the bubble, Ben Simmons is not walking through those doors. Gone is the defensive versatility and 6’10 frame with guard like speed and ball handling ability that gave Boston fits, including limiting Jayson Tatum to 31.6 percent shooting when the two were matched up (per https://stats.nba.com/). The Simmons absence is a hole I think the Sixers will struggle to overcome. Sure, Joel Embiid is undoubtedly the best player in this series but after that, where else do the Sixers have an advantage? Maybe defensively. The Celtics are a well balanced and disciplined team that ranks in the top ten in both offense and defense (per https://www.lineups.com/nba/team-rankings).
The fan in me says the Sixers will find a way and Joel Embiid will put his true talent on display for all to see and the Sixers will win in 7. However, the writer and aspiring analyst in me says, the Celtics dispatch the shorthanded Sixers in six games and force the organization to make some changes this offseason. But hey, this wouldn’t be the first time a team from Philadelphia shocked the world.