76ers Intrasquad Scrimmage - Wayne Terry TPL

Welcome to the moment. Phila unite. A historic rivalry between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics is less than twenty-four hours from embarking on a new installment. The third-seed Celtics (48-24) take on the sixth-seed 76ers (43-30) on Monday night, in the first game of the opening round of the playoffs. The Sixers, down Ben Simmons and battling inconsistency all season long, are the underdogs. Quite frankly, not many people give them much of a chance. But, if we went by what the public opinion was, why even play the series?

So, let’s get down to business, shall we?

Regular Season Outcomes Against Boston

The Sixers took three of four regular season affairs from the Celtics, including an opening night victory in Philly. Notably, the Sixers also dealt the Celtics their first blow at home (and the Sixers’ only road win against a playoff team) and won a game in Philly without Ben Simmons. 

Focusing On Tatum

While the 76ers would obviously love to have Simmons’ defensive prowess against the Celtics, all hope should not be banished just because the Australia native isn’t available. Simmons spent, by far, the most minutes against Tatum of any defender the Duke product faced this season. Tatum connected on 31.3% of his sixteen field goal attempts against Simmons. Across four games, Tatum averaged just 4.5 points per game with Simmons as his primary defender.

Different Looks

However, Ben Simmons wasn’t the make-or-break defensive maestro against the Celtics, despite what was undeniably a superb season on the defensive end of the court. Although the sample size of minutes is far smaller, Josh Richardson and Al Horford produced success against the first-time all-star forward.

As the primary defender, Horford limited Tatum to 5-for-17 shooting in 3 games played against him; Richardson held Tatum to 2-for-7 shooting. A sample of seven field goal attempts is, perhaps, reckless for proclaiming anything, but I’m going to include one more player in the mix. Matisse Thybulle, in similar sample size to Horford and Richardson, perturbed Tatum to the tune of 2-for-6 shooting. No, do not expect any of those players to assume primary Tatum duties across an entire game, let alone an entire series. However, the data suggests that there are various options that Brett Brown can use to give Tatum different looks. 

That sentiment is vastly different than what viewers felt two seasons ago, when the favored Sixers bowed to the Celtics in five games. There was one, maybe even zero, wing defenders that the Sixers could comfortably attach to Tatum and not get crushed off the dribble. I know what you’re thinking; no, Robert Covington couldn’t keep up with Tatum at all once he put the ball on the floor.

Defensive Rebounding and “One-Shot Defense”

The key to the 76ers pulling off an upset in this series is, almost comically so, simple.

“When you get down into simplifying why people win and lose a lot, it’s like ‘can you just get more shots than the opponent’,” Brett Brown said on Sunday evening. “And so, what does that mean? You know, defensive rebounding, ‘one-shot defense’. Can you claw back a few from the offensive rebounding side? Can you not just cough up the ball on turnovers? When you start looking at those three areas especially, it equates immediately into quantity of shots. And so, this specific thing about ‘one-shot defense’ and just being great on the defensive boards is a part of that belief I have. It’s within us, we’re not a small team. I feel like this series, when we go back and look at the outcome of this series when it’s all said and done, I think it’s going to be one of the telling points of somebody winning and losing.”

For Brown, it boils down to completing defensive possessions by holding box-outs and pulling down defensive rebounds. He’s not wrong. The Sixers, on average, outrebounded the Celtics 50.5-38.5 this season.

Defensive Rebounding Has Ruled The Day

In the Sixers’ opening night victory against the Celtics, they outrebounded Boston 62-41; the Celtics recorded just ten offensive rebounds. 

On December 12th, the Sixers waltzed into TD Garden for a six-point victory on a Thursday night on national television. They outrebounded the Celtics 45-33, and limited them to just nine offensive rebounds.

On January 9th, with news breaking before the game that Embiid would miss extended time with a hand injury, the Sixers overcame a fifteen-point deficit to pull out an eleven-point victory over the Celtics. The Sixers won the rebounding battle 48-38; Boston pulled down just eight offensive boards.

On February 1st, with the Celtics desperate to get on the board in the season series and the Sixers going through one of their lulls, Boston pounded out a 21-point victory at the Garden. Philly outrebounded Boston by 5; the Celtics pulled down nine offensive rebounds.

You see the correlation. The Sixers can control the game by dominating the glass and limiting Boston’s second-chance opportunities.

Joel Embiid Must Dominate

Limiting second-chance opportunities begins with the Sixers’ “crown jewel”. The game’s most dominant center pulled down more than ten rebounds per game against the Celtics this season. Defensively, he was dominant, as well. But, for the sake of reality, let’s take a look at how Philly’s defense against the Celtics fared without Simmons this season. In the 9.3 minutes per game that Embiid played without Simmons on the floor, the Sixers sported a defensive rating of 78.9 and a net rating of 24.8 in 28 minutes played.

Now, there’s obviously a downside of no Simmons–Philly’s defensive rebounding percentage understandably dropped significantly without him on the floor. But the Sixers, albeit in very, very small sample size, averaged more blocks, gave up over six fewer points per game off turnovers, allowed fewer second chance points, permitted nearly five fewer fast break points, and conceded over thirteen fewer points in the paint per game with Embiid on and Simmons off. 

Again, the sample size matters. But, we’ve seen polar opposite negative numbers in smaller sample sizes when Embiid was off the floor in the past. Hell, data based on small sample size influenced the organization’s decision to give Al Horford $97 million guaranteed.

Let’s take a look at the offensive end. 

Living At The Line

Embiid averaged over ten free throw attempts per game against Boston this season. In Philly’s road victory against the Celtics, with Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley ripping him before the game, Embiid turned in a 38-point gem; he connected on twelve of fourteen free throw attempts in that game. 

Before suffering an ankle injury against the Blazers and scaring the Sixers into reducing his workload in the final three bubble games, Embiid turned in 41-, 27-, 30-, and 23-point performances. In those games, respectively, he attempted 12, 12, 9, and 13 free throws.

Offensive Positioning

A significant variable in keeping Joel Embiid engaged on offense is getting him the ball at or below the elbow. When he feels empowered to draw contact and seek fouls, he gets the opposition’s bigs in foul trouble early. Then, when they have to resort to their backup bigs, he inflicts major damage from both the field and the free throw line. The formula to inspiring Embiid on both ends is giving him paint touches early. Once he has his offensive rhythm, he starts to really show life on the defensive side of the ball. If the Sixers make getting him the ball on the block a focal point of their offense, they can pressure Boston’s bench to perform by getting the starters in foul trouble. That must be the foundation of Brett Brown’s offensive attack.

Tobias Harris echoed the importance of weaponizing Embiid in his media availability on Sunday: “We have the most dominant big man in the game, so using Joel on the block and have him go to work. That’s about all the intel I can give you right now [big smirk].”

As Zach Lowe, and many other people, have said, a locked-in Joel Embiid is the best player in the NBA.

Rotations

The playoffs are when rotations tighten and starters play increased minutes. Brett Brown has remarked that he wants to keep his playoff rotation as deep as nine players. So, this is how I believe that rotation could look:

  Starters 2nd Unit 3rd Unit 4th Unit 5th Unit Closers
PG Shake Milton Richardson Milton Burks Milton Burks
SG Josh Richardson Furkan Korkmaz Korkmaz Milton Richardson Richardson
SF Matisse Thybulle Alec Burks Burks Thybulle Thybulle Harris
PF Tobias Harris Mike Scott Horford Harris Harris Horford
C Joel Embiid Al Horford Embiid Scott Embiid Embiid

At Second Glance…

Few things worth noting here. First, the writing seems to be on the wall that Brown is going to insert Thybulle into the starting lineup as early as game one of the series. During Sunday’s media availability, Brown stated that the coaching staff was considering starting Thybulle and then declined to comment who the odd man out might be. 

Second, as good as Raul Neto was in the last three seeding games, he’s just too small and fickle. I also have to wonder how much of his play against the Rockets and Raptors was because of the quality of players those teams were deploying from the depths of their benches. All of the players I included at the point guard spot can handle the ball and have the size to defend when locked in. I like all of their chances, individually, to defend whomever they’re matched up with more than I do Neto’s.

Third, you’ll notice that I did not include Glenn Robinson III. That’s because news broke on Sunday that he would miss time with an oblique injury. I can’t include him in the rotation if I don’t know when he’s going to be available to play.

Finally, you’ll see Mike Scott slotted at center in the fourth lineup above. Yes, you read that correctly. The Celtics are small, and the Sixers exhibited success in matching pace against Portland with Scott as the small-ball center. I’m not saying you’ll see extended minutes, but I do think Brown saw something he liked with the small lineup featuring Scott at center. Obviously, Portland is a much different team than Boston is. But, there may come a time when the Celtics are pestering the Sixers’ interior with active defense and the Sixers go small to avoid turning the ball over in the post.

Matching Up

PG: Milton — Gordon Hayward

SG: Richardson — Kemba Walker

SF: Thybulle — Jayson Tatum

PF: Harris — Jaylen Brown

C: Embiid — Daniel Theis

Predictions

Celtics 122, 76ers 105

Celtics 118, 76ers 114

76ers 114, Celtics 110

Celtics 124, 76ers 120

Celtics 131, 76ers 118

I think this series will be a lot closer than people think. Ultimately, the Sixers are bound to have one horrendous shooting game, and the Celtics are bound to get one 6-for-8 three-point shooting game from Marcus Smart. Those games may be the difference between 2-2 and 3-1.

As for the others, it’s up to Brett Brown to find a way to deploy his team in a way that outduels Brad Stevens’ wings. I don’t believe Brown can outsmart Stevens, and I don’t believe the likes of Tobias Harris, Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, and Shake Milton can hold down Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. Gordon Hayward is containable. But, the others mentioned are too athletic or too quick to be stopped by the pieces the Sixers have at their disposal. It’ll be a respectable fight, but Simmons’ absence is a fatal loss for the perimeter defense.

But hey, weirder things have happened in sports. Hell, I’m not sure if you heard, but the Eagles took down Tom Brady and the mighty Patriots in the Super Bowl with a backup quarterback two years ago. They play the series despite expectations because heart and hunger are the two most impossible variables to measure. It just so happens that they’re the two most important, as well.