Boston’s Positionless Offense

This is an efficient offense that caters to the talent and size that they have on the wings, with plenty of screens and isolation opportunities. Boston’s guards rotate around the perimeter, exploit positional mismatches after defensive switches and penetrate in the lane. Jayson Tatum is at the forefront of Boston’s movement-oriented offense, which produced the sixth-most isolation points in the NBA. Before the stoppage of play, Tatum was among the top-10 in isolation possessions, isolation frequency, and isolation points scored. Tatum touched the ball over 20 more times per game this season compared to last and his usage catapulted to nearly 30%. The 22-year-old earned himself the role of Boston’s primary playmaker, but Kemba Walker mirrored Tatum’s usage and rivaled him in touches

Walker is relegated to more of an off-ball role in the Celtics’ offense, but he is still Boston’s primary pick and roll ball handler.

Even as a secondary playmaker, Walker placed top-10 in pick and roll ball handler frequency, points, and points per possession.Boston did not score the fifth-most pick and roll ball handler points in the league on the back of Walker alone. Daniel Theis totaled the 10th-most screen assisted points in the NBA, an indictment of his offensive impact in the half-court. Contributions came from everyone because Boston tries to free their ball-handlers or force mismatches with screens. 

Pick and Roll Ball Handler:

Jayson Tatum: 355 Points on 341 Possessions 

Marcus Smart: 189 Points on 181 Possessions 

Gordon Hayward: 161 Points on 192 Possessions 

Jaylen Brown: 116 Points on 134 Possessions 

Brad Wannamaker: 107 Points on 136 Possessions

To complement their two-man game, Boston spaces the floor well with able-bodied shooters around the perimeter. Though altogether the team scored the fewest catch and shoot points in the league, six of Boston’s rotation players shot better than 36% from distance. Rather than deploying a structured lineup similar to years past, Boston went positionless on offense this season. Jaylen Brown benefitted from a spaced-out floor, best exemplified by new career-highs in drives and jump shots attempted. Even in his 10th season, Gordon Hayward set a career-high 50.2% field goal percentage with the addition of almost 20 points per game. Boston’s Swiss Army Knife, Marcus Smart, took his highest volume of three-point attempts this season. 


Size Matters

Boston features positionless lineups that could force Philadelphia to run, which derailed the Sixers in their February matchup. None of Boston’s most frequently used lineups include a faceup-four, which can complicate things on both ends of the floor for Philadelphia. The tallest player in the Celtics’ most common lineups is usually 6’8″, whereas Philadelphia rolled out four players that height or taller on a nightly basis. To Philadelphia’s advantage, the Celtics don’t have much of an answer for defending Ben Simmons. 

Boston’s smaller, positionless lineups fit their roster well, but also, benefit Simmons – one of the league’s most ferocious attackers. 

In transition, there are very few players that can will their way to the basket as easily as Simmons. Even further, there is probably a smaller number of players that can stop the Simmons freight train in the open court.  

 

In three of the four games where Philadelphia and Boston met, he eclipsed 18 points and shot 60% or greater from the field. He played three or more games against eight different opponents this season and connected on more field goals versus Boston than any other team. Additionally, Simmons drove to the basket more times against the Celtics than any team and made 70.6% of his driving shots. If Simmons’ offense grows stagnant in the half-court, though, Joel Embiid’s size and post dominance would be of great aid. 

There is an undeniable correlation between Embiid operating in the post and the Sixers winning. 

In Embiid’s first and third game against Boston this season, he posted up his opponent eight or fewer times. It’s not coincidental that his third highest-scoring game this season came during his second meeting with Boston, where he posted up his opponent 19 times. Theis indeed stifled Embiid in their final game, but Philadelphia’s big was battling discomfort in his hand and Boston kept him away from the basket. If the 2x All-NBA center can impose his will over Boston’s defense, the Celtics will be forced to match Philadelphia’s size. The Sixers’ plan of attack should consist of slowing down the game and establishing a deep post presence, to work inside-out. 

Philadelphia scored the fourth-most catch and shoot points around the league, which should keep defenders honest enough to prevent double-teams.  

Brett Brown will have his hands full trying to cook up the most productive combination of players on the floor, although, Philadelphia’s size could overwhelm Boston. The Celtics have versatile enough defenders to guard several positions, but if Boston throws their biggest bodies at Simmons and Embiid, opportunities will arise for other Sixers. It’s worth noting that five of Boston’s rotation players committed more fouls against Philadelphia than any other team. 


Ben Simmons vs. Jayson Tatum

In 2018, Tatum managed to score more field goals against Philadelphia than any other opponent. Throughout four different meetings in 2019-20, he dealt with a combination of constant off-ball attention from Simmons and on-ball pressure from various defenders. Tatum struggled to erupt on offense against the Sixers because of Philadelphia’s multi-positional defensive flexibility. Contrary to Simmons’ success versus Boston, Tatum made just 24-of-72 attempts from the field against Philadelphia. Of six teams that Tatum faced three or more times this year, he registered the worst field goal percentage against the Sixers. 

Tatum On Offense in ’19-20: 

vs. B.Simmons: 5-of-16 (31.1% FG

vs. A.Horford: 5-of-17 (29.4% FG)

vs. J.Richardson: 2-of-7 (28.6% FG)

While Tatum is a budding superstar that dropped upwards of 30 points per game on almost 50% shooting post-All-Star Break, Simmons is one of the league’s most valuable defenders.

Dating back to last season, Boston and Philadelphia have faced each other eight times and Tatum has only produced nine baskets when defended by Simmons. If Simmons neutralized Tatum for the duration of a series, Boston’s offensive identity could drastically change. When Tatum is on the floor, the Celtics own a 113.8 offensive rating – one of the best in the league. When he is not on the floor, Boston’s offensive rating falls to 105.4


Philadelphia’s Defensive Reinforcements 

Because of Philadelphia’s improved defensive versatility, opposing teams are met with more resistance around the perimeter and have to work much harder to generate adequate shots. The additions of Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle eliminated defensive liabilities in Philadelphia’s backcourt. The two of them can stalk passing lanes, deny off-ball, fight through screens, or defend the point of attack. Gordon Hayward made 3-of-11 shots combined against those two and Kemba Walker sank just 8 baskets on them in 23 tries. Thybulle may be a rookie, but nonetheless, he held his opponents to 28.4% shooting from beyond the arc and was one of eight players to amass 80 steals and 40 blocks. This season, Al Horford bothered Tatum, limited Jaylen Brown to 4-of-10 shooting, and forced Hayward to miss 8 shots of 10 attempts.

The Celtics’ defense is seemingly more versatile than the Sixers’, but Philadelphia is better equipped to defend Boston than in years past. 


Verdict 

Both Philadelphia and Boston have immensely talented rosters with opposite skillsets. Neither team has particularly great benches, but Boston’s second unit produced the fewest points in the league and shot as worse than 26 teams from deep. Philadelphia’s bench, on the other hand, is deeper offensively and has more plug-and-play options. Boston’s movement-heavy offense generates plenty of good looks for their skilled wings. The constant screen setting will be problematic for Philadelphia, depending on coaching adjustments. Under Brett Brown, the Sixers have done a poor job against opposing pick and roll ball handlers, and Boston has a handful.

Philadelphia has less semblance of a half-court offense than Boston, but their size will be tough to match up with for the Celtics.

Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and even Jayson Tatum are terrific defenders, but the Sixers have more matchup flexibility. If Boston goes with a smaller lineup to run against Philadelphia, the Sixers would probably welcome that opportunity. Again, very few players can facilitate an offense with as much speed as Ben Simmons and he’s 6’10” – if you forgot. Likewise, if Philadelphia establishes an early post presence with Embiid, Boston could not afford to go small. 

In 16 games this season where Embiid posted up his opponent 12 or more times, Philadelphia posted a 13-3 record. Embiid also made 49.4% of the shots he attempted against players 6’8″ or shorter, which is greater than his normal field goal percentage.  If the Celtics run their normal lineup, there are still positional mismatches in Philadelphia’s favor. Tony Stark threatened Loki with “We have a hulk.” Well, the Sixers have a Joel Embiid. Don’t get it twisted, a healthy Embiid against Theis or Enes Kanter will always be BBQ Chicken. 

Philadelphia wins this series in six.