Ah, we’ve finally arrived.
Feels like forever since the 76ers actually played a basketball game, and as much as we enjoyed asking Brett Brown meaningless questions, it’s time to get this thing going again.
I feel like it’s somewhat worthless to look at the Sixers/Celtics regular season series. One game was in October, another was in November, and a third took place on a different continent. Kyrie Irving and Daniel Theis and Jerryd Bayless were in the mix. The rotations were different and the teams were different, so a stroll down memory lane feels like an exercise in futility.
What we do have is a good chunk of relevant and recent playoff basketball, plus some useful regular season data that encompasses more than just four games, so we’ll lean on that to chalk up some storylines to follow for this series.
In no real order:
Rebounding the basketball
At 85.3, Boston has the best defensive rebounding percentage in the NBA playoffs. The Sixers have a 29.6 offensive rebounding percentage, which is – you guessed it – also a league best.
Something’s gotta give in this department. It’s sort of like the unstoppable force against the immovable object, a question for the philosophers (such as Nietzsche, Socrates, and Jeff Van Gundy). You’re going to see some battles on the glass, and we’ll find out if Dario Saric and Ersan Ilyasova can continue to wriggle into those tight spots to grab missed shots and create extra possessions. Al Horford leads the Celtics with 8.7 RPG in the playoffs and Jayson Tatum, the rookie wing scorer, chips in a second-best 5.3. Aron Baynes will come off the bench to be a pain in the ass on both ends and he leads their offensive rebounding effort with 2.7 per game.
He had five in game seven against the Bucks and just does a nice job of wrenching and leveraging his way into ideal positions:
Yea, there’s a little shirt pull in there, but it’s crafty and savvy, a veteran type of move. I’ll be trying that at the Fishtown rec center later this week.
Boston is #1 in the postseason in limiting second chance points, just 7 per game against Milwaukee. They were #4 in this department in the regular season, so they don’t give you a lot of cheap stuff on the glass. Philly is usually able to negate turnover issues with effective offensive rebounding, but if they struggle in both areas it’s typically a rough outing.
Going small and defending the perimeter
The Celtics are a better defensive team than the Heat. I don’t think the Sixers are going to be able to go Saric/Ilyasova and spread the floor with as much success this time around, simply because Boston is more mobile, they switch on the perimeter with ease, and they do a better job shuffling from inside to outside (and vice versa). They finished the season as the league’s best team at defending the three point line, limiting opponents to 33.9% shooting from deep.
This is pretty good defense here:
Khris Middleton hits a difficult shot, and credit where it’s due; he had a hell of a series shooting the ball.
Still, watch Tatum close down Thon Maker and get his hands in there as Terry Rozier rotates out to Malcolm Brogdon. Marcus Smart slides back to Middleton to get a hand up and contest the shot. I don’t think most players are knocking that down.
All of that considered, it doesn’t mean that I don’t think the Sixers can’t be effective surrounding Ben Simmons with four shooters. A big part of that look is spacing the floor and allowing Simmons to drive the lane and suck in defenders. Middleton isn’t necessarily a guy who’s going to finish that first drive to the rack, but Simmons will if he sees that lane and gets Horford tracking backwards.
Defending Embiid and Simmons
For everything Boston does well at range, they aren’t as stout on the inside. They find a way to make it work with the Horford and Baynes combination.
For instance, Horford doesn’t have Joel Embiid’s size, but he’s a veteran who plays with good balance and does a nice job of disrupting. Embiid only shot 35.7% from the field when he was defended by Horford in the regular season and really didn’t play that well against Boston overall, which Brett Brown touched on Sunday:
“They keep him honest. They double from different spots, they leave Ben or T.J., have random doubles. Aron Baynes I know well, I coached Aron for many years, and he’s a physical defensive player, he does a good job. Sometimes Al will end up on Joel and just be like a smart veteran and get underneath him. He plays about six inches lower and can move his feet.
Schematically, defensively they’re solid, Brad does a great job. I think the individual pieces that they have defensively are elite, you start looking at their bodies 1-7 they really individually can guard their own man. All of that equaled pretty good defense on Joel Embiid.”
One thing is absolutely certain; Horford and Baynes aren’t soft crybabies like Hassan Whiteside. The Heat center was a total non-factor in round one, but Embiid is going to have his hands full this time around, being defended by people who actually look like they give a crap.
I think his passing out of the post is going to be huge in this series, because if Boston does disguise those double teams, Joel can free up his teammates with proper recognition.
In the 89-80 regular season win, Embiid did a nice job here to adjust to a late double and find Trevor Booker underneath:
Joel made a lot of smart decisions in that win.
As for Simmons, the Celtics threw different coverages at him in the regular season and will probably do the same in this series. There was some sagging, some stuff in his grill, and some switching, too. Horford, Marcus Morris, a bit of Marcus Smart, maybe even Semi Ojeleye, who did a good job against Giannis in round one. I think the way Stevens approaches the Simmons matchup is going to be the most intriguing thing to look for in game one.
Ball protection and pace
After Cleveland and Indy, the Bucks and Celtics played the second-slowest series of the opening round, just 94.17 possessions per 48 minutes. The Sixers and Heat played the fastest first round series and logged a 102.99 number.
That was to be expected based on regular season numbers. Boston and Milwaukee were both bottom-ten teams in terms of pace, so that’s how it played out in the postseason. Part of that is because both teams were good at protecting the ball, turning it over just 13 times each on average in their series. Philly and Miami coughed it up way more often and got into games that were a little more stretched out and frenetic.
A faster game obviously benefits the Sixers, who get out in transition and operate with rhythm and tempo. Boston is capable of combating that by playing the slower, more physical game that Miami tried to play, only they’ve got more skill on both ends of the floor.
Jaylen Brown’s hamstring
I saw him slide as the hammy went. Those are the worst injuries to suffer, when your body is expecting one thing and the floor gives you something else instead. And it’s annoying, too, because if some opponent clatters into you, then it is what it is, but when you go non-contact and come out worse for wear, it’s a pretty depressing feeling.
He’s doubtful/questionable for game one, which is a big deal considering he was their second-best scorer in the Milwaukee series:
Tatum put up 15.4 per game, but didn’t necessarily shoot the ball that well, hitting only 30.8% from three. They’ve been sharing the scoring burden post-Kyrie injury, so you see balanced distribution, similar to how the Sixers score their points.
The Bucks had some success switching screens to limit Boston offensively, something the Sixers do very well, so watch for that tonight with Simmons and Robert Covington working on the perimeter. Philadelphia turns missed shots into offensive transition, which Milwaukee did well in spurts during round one.
For all the talk of Kyrie Irving’s injury, Terry Rozier is playing with a ton of confidence right now. He’s logging a team-high 36 minutes per game and putting up 18, 4, and 7.
He’s trying stuff like this:
— SLAM Magazine (@SLAMonline) April 29, 2018
Yep. Dude is good. Don’t sleep on him.
And don’t sleep on Boston’s home court advantage. New England sports fans are just like us – loud, obnoxious, and total assholes. It makes for a wonderful sporting environment, unlike a half-full Miami arena.
That’s what I’m looking for tonight. I think Brad Stevens has done a hell of a job coaching this team through injuries, and they play solid defense across the board. That said, Philly has more talent overall, and if Brett Brown and Ben Simmons can keep the Sixers oiled, I’m not sure how the Celtics score enough points to keep up. You’ll probably see the Celtics do what Miami did and try to slow the game down and make life difficult on the offensive end. This really is the classic case of two good defensive teams trying to assert their preferred style on the other.
Prediction: Sixers in 7