The Sixers will have a chance to exorcise not one but two demons in the 2023 playoffs. It is up to you to decide which means more: breaking through the second round or snapping a five-playoff-series losing streak to the Boston Celtics?
This season, the stars have aligned to give the Sixers an opportunity to conquer both at the same time.
It all starts in Boston on Monday night.
This series has make-or-break implications for Philadelphia. If they lose, what is James Harden’s future with the Sixers? If he departs, what’s the pivot with Joel Embiid on the roster in the middle of his prime? Or, is something more drastic in play?
Of course, with so much at stake, Embiid is ‘doubtful‘ for Game 1 of the series with a sprained right knee. His play throughout the series will ostensibly be compromised because of that ailing knee.
But, these are the moments the Sixers acquired Harden for. These are the moments that will determine whether he gets a full max contract this offseason. Regardless of whether or not Embiid is available at the tip-off of Game 1, Harden will have to set the tone for the rest of the team rising up to help the ailing MVP favorite if he can’t be his best self.
Or else, the summer starts at the exact same time it always has for this era of the Sixers.
Ever since last summer, the Sixers have been viewed as a distant inferior to the Celtics. Yet, the season series between these two teams was decided by less than five points per game.
Boston won three of the four matchups. I tend to throw away opening night for everyone because the home team usually has the edge unless the talent imbalance favors the away team overwhelmingly so. The Celtics won a game with most of their rotation players out. The Sixers won a game with multiple of Boston’s rotation players out.
The game that I think is the best representation of this matchup is a three-point Celtics win in Philadelphia. That is, the game in which Jayson Tatum hit a three with less than two seconds to play and Embiid’s would-be game-tying shot from beyond halfcourt came after time expired.
With the exception of the ‘three best lineups’ section or unless specified otherwise, this preview will focus on that game.
Three best lineups
In previous previews, I’ve given the three best lineups over the course of the season. But, what works against the Detroit Pistons might not work so easily against the Celtics. So, this will be concentrated on both team’s three best lineups against each other. Of course, these are all ultra-small sample sizes. So, there is likely some noise here.
Harden-Tyrese Maxey-Tobias Harris-PJ Tucker-Embiid: +23.1 per 100 possessions in 61 minutes
So, if there was ever a reason for confidence in this series, it is this lineup. The most minutes played of any lineup the Sixers showed the Celtics. An elite net output. These were the starters the Sixers rode with for the last portion of the regular season and the opening round of the playoffs. This group would ostensibly (defensive feel of the game makes Maxey a variable) close out games in crunch-time situations.
Harden-De’Anthony Melton-Harris-Tucker-Embiid: +2.5 per 100 possessions in 42 minutes
This was the starting lineup in that three-point loss in Philadelphia. If you need defense in crunch time, I would expect Melton to be in for Maxey.
Maxey-Melton-Jalen McDaniels-Georges Niang-Embiid: +41 per 100 possessions in 7 minutes
I especially like this non-Harden lineup for one reason. I don’t think Philadelphia can afford to play Niang with Paul Reed. The Sixers need to play those non-Embiid minutes as closely to even as possible, if not better. Niang is going to be a target for dribble penetration, and that’s going to make it more difficult to win those minutes that Embiid is on the bench. So, it might make sense to play them together.
Of course, the other side of that is you might want to fortify your perimeter defense around Embiid if lateral movement will be a struggle while he’s injured. Playing a guy who would be a soft spot in that front line doesn’t help protect Embiid’s knee.
Marcus Smart-Derrick White-Jaylen Brown-Tatum-Al Horford: +37.5 per 100 possessions in 11 minutes
This wasn’t the starting lineup in the Celtics’ win in Philadelphia. But, I wonder if, when the chips are down, this is Boston’s closing lineup in crunch time. It can switch, it’s pesky, you (kind of) trust the decision-making. I would think it’s either this or Grant Williams in for White. That actually probably isn’t the Celtics’ best lineup for closing games, either. The best lineup might be White in place of Smart, with Brown, Tatum, Williams, and Horford in there. But, we’ll see if Joe Mazzulla would dare rock that boat.
Malcolm Brogdon-White-Brown-Williams-Robert Williams III: +56.6 per 100 possessions in 10 minutes
Speaking of noise, plus-56.6 per 100 is deafeningly loud. Brogdon figures to be a significant key for Boston’s side of things. I bet we’ll see this group a lot when it comes to staggering Tatum and Brown.
Brogdon-Sam Hauser-Tatum-Williams-Luke Kornet: +14.6 per 100 possessions in 10 minutes
If we’re seeing Kornet in this series, I’d bet something went horribly wrong or incredibly well for one of the teams. That, or Embiid got every other feasible big man in foul trouble. I would guess this group’s output is inflated by Hauser lacing a couple triples in the second matchup between these teams in Boston in early February.
Keys for the Sixers
It all starts with the guy who appears destined to be named the MVP of the league this week.
Everything — everything — about this series hinges on Embiid’s knee. There’s still so much caginess regarding how Embiid is feeling and the extent of the damage in the knee. If it’s as bad as the information out there makes it out to be or worse, we’re talking about the team’s most important player on both sides of the court being a shell of himself. If it’s being overstated to any degree, things get that much easier/favorable.
Best-case scenario, Embiid is able to play Game 1 and looks at least 80 percent of his normal self, improving as the series progresses. Maybe the Sixers have a shot.
Worst-case scenario, assuming he’s available at all, is that Boston starts out in single coverage to test him. Embiid is more than capable of scoring with a bad knee. So, if he proves that he can still light the Celtics up, they’ll likely start to throw their regular defensive schemes at him. That is, they’ll show him a different look every time he touches the ball.
You might think that’s just a cliche. In this case, it is not. In the loss to the Celtics in Philadelphia, Boston showed him a different coverage on every single touch. That is, more than 30 different ways of trying to defend Embiid. And no two consecutive touches saw the same look. Boston will help his way with anyone on the roster. The Celtics will lean towards Horford to guard him on the initial touch and then re-arrange the puzzle from there.
If he’s uncomfortable with pivoting, it will be very difficult for him to maneuver hard double-teams, and he’ll force jumpers or turn the ball over, if not hurting himself more. He won’t be able to attack off the dribble as aggressively, effectively reduced to being a stretch five.
The Sixers will get picked apart on defense, forced to drop Embiid below the level of the screen. With that coverage, Boston will step into open jumpers off the dribble all series long. Embiid won’t be able to make up for his teammates’ defensive shortcomings, struggling to pivot from the weak side to the strong side to offer good contests at the rim or stop dribble penetration and cutting dead in its tracks.
If that isn’t the mortal wound, Boston going five-out on offense will be. They’ll challenge Embiid to guard in space, daring him to overcome whatever pain he experiences when trying to move laterally. Perhaps the Sixers try to switch one through four, that will just yield open pick-and-pop threes for the Celtics. Perhaps Philadelphia tries to switch everything. If Embiid’s injury is at least as significant as it has been made out to be, he won’t be able to keep up or will risk further injury. When the Celtics get around him, helpers will step to the ball to try to seal the cracks. That will create open threes elsewhere.
Anything close to the worst-case scenario, and you can probably start making your vacation plans.
The in-between scenario is that Embiid isn’t available for Game 1, ostensibly spotting the Celtics a 1-0 series lead. Perhaps that extra time helps him feel better, and he’s closer to his best self for Game 2 and going forward. Maybe, when all is said and done, that’s Philadelphia’s best chance of winning this series. But, if it doesn’t make much of a difference, the Sixers gave away a playoff game for nothing.
Harden’s two-point shooting
Doc Rivers told reporters at Sunday’s practice that, besides Embiid, the team is healthy. Harden was blunt when asked about the achilles discomfort that he previously claimed had been bothering him intermittently for months, stopping the question dead in its tracks to assure that the injury was no longer a problem. Embiid is the only Sixer listed on the injury report heading into this series.
So, there is no excuse.
Harden shot 26 percent on twos in the four-game sweep of the Nets. Even worse, he struggled to the tune of 22-percent shooting on attempts inside of 14 feet in that series.
Simply put, that cannot happen again. It’s bad enough that those possessions end in zero points instead of a would-be two points on a high-quality shot. Harden cannot let the Celtics play him as a shooter. If Boston doesn’t feel threatened by his driving game, they’ll play up on him and dare him to attack the rim. And if he can’t find his touch, Harden’s impact will be limited. That would be overwhelming for a team already ostensibly fighting to overcome Embiid’s injury.
Maxey’s offensive punch
Maxey averaged 10 points fewer against the Celtics than his season average over the four regular-season games between these two teams. The average outcome being Boston by a little more than four points, you could argue that Maxey’s production is a significant swing factor in how we perceive this matchup when both teams are fully healthy. That isn’t intended to point the blame his way. It’s also too reductive for my liking. But, it’s fair to say he hasn’t played nearly as well as the Sixers need him to in order to beat the Celtics. 10 points on 40-percent true shooting won’t cut it.
The Sixers do need to do some things to help Maxey, like quickly getting the ball to him when he has an angle to get downhill. He’s not at the stage of his offensive development where he can self-create scores against rangy defenders with low centers of gravity, a la White. So, unless he miraculously leveled up as an isolation scorer over the last week, Maxey’s scores are going to come from aggressive shot-hunting off the catch or quick catch-and-go action on swing passes when he has an advantage against out-of-position defenders. He has to be decisive, any hesitation will clog the faucet.
How deep is the rotation?
The deeper you get into the playoffs, the more you shorten your playing rotation. I think Rivers will keep Niang in the final cut. Whether that’s a good move or not, for this matchup, is certainly debatable. Philadelphia might not have the offensive punch coming off the bench that it has in the starting lineup. But, they rubbed together moments of steadiness on defense after the trade deadline.
Expect Melton, McDaniels, and Reed to be locks. I think it would be wise to include Danuel House Jr., although he’s been used as a spot rotation player all season. If the regular season is an indicator, it would be surprising if Niang wasn’t part of the rotation. I do think Rivers needs to have an extremely short leash, though. It’s just not a great matchup for the sharpshooting forward.
Whether it’s four reserves and one of Embiid and Harden or four starters and a reserve, the goal is the same. Stay afloat every minute that the starting five isn’t on the floor.
Philadelphia was outscored by a team-worst 0.7 points per minute in the 37 minutes Embiid was off the court in the four games against Boston this season. The Sixers were outscored by a team-worst 1.94 points per minute in the 14 minutes Reed, who has been the full-time backup center for the better part of the 2023 calendar, played against the Celtics this season.
That is, of course, laughably small sample size. It also implies that Reed couldn’t hold his own, which isn’t necessarily accurate because it’s just as much about the guys he shares the floor with holding up their ends of the bargain as it is about him.
Whatever the case, the team cannot simply implode as soon as Embiid sits down, especially since the big man might be compromised when he’s playing to begin with.
Philadelphia struggled to defend in transition for the better part of this season. And Boston benefitted greatly from that. The Celtics killed the Sixers on fast break points throughout the season series. But, you could argue the biggest culprit of Philadelphia losing three of the four games was Boston’s perimeter shooting.
The Celtics hit at least 15 triples in three of the four games. In fact, perhaps the biggest reason why the Celtics stormed back to win that February game in Philadelphia was that poor transition defense led to open threes. Horford knocked down five threes in that game, most of which came as the Sixers scrambled back on defense. It was even a problem when the Celtics had to take the ball out of bounds.
The Sixers have to pick up a man as they get back on defense. There cannot be green jerseys stepping into unguarded pull-up threes because no one is there to confront the ball. Philadelphia cannot be disconnected after the primary transition and let Boston get an open three just one or two passes away.
The Celtics are going to run a lot of five-out offense, especially if they believe Embiid is truly vulnerable on defense. Unless his lateral movement is miraculously unbothered, it’s difficult to envision Philadelphia leaning into a switch-everything defensive scheme. I would guess we’ll see a lot of heavy or modified drop coverage, and some hedging for the likes of Harden and Maxey.
If they don’t think they can switch everything, I would be intrigued by the idea of just giving up Maxey. Rather than trying to hide him, just put him on whoever the Celtics want. The thought is that letting him guard on an island might be more advantageous than having him switch as a ball-handler is getting downhill. One of Maxey’s biggest problems on defense is screen navigation. He gets caught on the driver’s back hip and either commits a foul or cannot offer a meaningful rear contest. So, rather than deal with that, let him guard straight up. No need for a screener. If Boston makes jumpers over his contests, so be it. If they get around him off the dribble, at least that’s not as bad as him being totally behind.
It goes beyond Maxey’s defensive shortcomings, though. As a team, the Sixers need to be much more crisp with communication on screens and calling out coverages on the fly. Things like this cannot be a theme of the series if the Sixers are going to have any chance:
We are all at the mercy of Embiid’s status. That is to say, any and all information and developments on his knee injury can make or break this series.
If you told me Embiid was 100 percent and that the injury was not a problem at all, I’d pick the Sixers in six games. They’ve done enough all season to make me believe that they’re a legitimately good team. On top that Joel Embiid is the best player in this matchup by a country mile. You could even make a reasonable case that they have two of the best three players in this series.
If Embiid is anything less than 90 percent, I don’t trust the supporting cast to sustain the level of play necessary to meet the big guy halfway. That said, Celtics in five.
There is just too much uncertainty right now. And when you have this much uncertainty, you lean towards the team that has, well, certainty.