We all sort of knew these two teams would eventually clash in the postseason and now it's time. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers will face off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals beginning on May 1. The bitter rivalry* will be adding another chapter as two perennial MVP candidates, Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid, look to duke it out for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But, one MVP's health is up in the air.
Embiid suffered a knee sprain in Game 3 during the Sixers' series against the Brooklyn Nets. Head coach Doc Rivers told reporters that Embiid is "doubtful for at least Game 1." This obviously has huge implications as without a fully healthy Embiid, the Sixers are climbing a huge uphill battle.
With this in mind, let's look at a full breakdown of this matchup.
Game 1: Monday, May 1st at 7:30 p.m. ET in Boston
Game 2: Wednesday, May 3rd at 8 p.m. ET in Boston
Game 3: Friday, May 5th at 7:30 p.m. ET in Philadelphia
Game 4: Sunday, May 7th at 3:30 p.m. ET in Philadelphia
Game 5: Tuesday, May 9th TBD in Boston (if necessary)
Game 6: Thursday, May 11th TBD in Philadelphia (if necessary)
Game 7: Sunday, May 14th TBD in Boston (if necessary)
How they got here:
The Celtics were able to get by the Atlanta Hawks, 4-2, despite the Hawks' grittiness and some heroics from Trae Young. On the other hand, the Sixers were the first team to reach the second round in this year's playoffs, sweeping the Brooklyn Nets 4-0.
This is going to be a 3-point versus free throw battle. The Sixers were top five in total free throws attempted this season and shot 83% on the year. The Celtics meanwhile were in the bottom five in free throws attempted, but did attack the paint more in the series against the Hawks. This has to continue especially if Embiid misses time as the C's can own the paint with the big man's absence. Beyond the arc, Boston was second in the league in total threes attempted this year, while Philly was in the middle of the pack. The numbers held true in their four season matchups as well (all four being decided by ten points or less and Boston winning three of them). The Sixers outscored Boston by 37 points from the line, but were outscored by 57 points from three-point land. This will be interesting to watch as playoff basketball is a lot different from regular season basketball, but these numbers may still hold some weight throughout the series.
Offensive Matchups to Watch
Jayson Tatum vs Tobias Harris
There are times where Tobias Harris looks lost on the Sixers, but that does not mean he is incapable of a good game here and there. He also has a good size and frame to be a cable defender at times and he will draw the short straw first to guard Jayson Tatum in this one. Harris could potentially give Tatum trouble for some stretches as he can match Tatum's physicals, but when Tatum is hot there aren't too many guys in the league that can stop him. I'm not too concerned about Harris locking up Tatum, but it is something to note regardless.
Bench vs Bench
Who doesn't love a good bench matchup? Guys that can come in and make big time plays while the stars and starters rest are crucial for any team in the playoffs and this one is no different. In the four regular season matchups this season, Boston got 120 total points from their second-unit, while the Sixers only got 54. I do not think that the Sixers' bench is as bad as these numbers suggest, but consider this: players such as De'Anthony Melton, Jalen McDaniels, and Paul Reed are 24, 25, and 23 years old respectively, which means that inexperience can play a factor in their performances. In fact, this is McDaniels first postseason and he is now going up against a squad that reached the Finals a year ago. Philly is going to need these three guys and others to step up in a big way with Embiid being absent or not at 100%. With all this being said, I don't think that they can match Boston's overall depth and experience (not to mention their Sixth Man of the Year, Malcolm Brogdon. That has to count for something, right)?
For total defensive rating throughout this year's regular season, the C's sported a rating of 111, good for the second best in the league. The Sixers were not that far behind them, earning a rating of 113. This could be a dogfight defensively, but without a fully healthy Embiid, it could be very different. I cannot stress this enough that his injury in the first round is going to play a huge factor. His defensive presence in the paint can make things difficult for Boston. It is also worth noting that the Sixers were top ten in the league in total steals this season, so lazy passes that the Celtics were sometimes throwing against Atlanta will make things that more difficult for them in this series.
Defensive Matchups to Watch
Marcus Smart vs James Harden
This may be the most important matchup of the series. Harden has to carry the load in Embiid's absence, as well as if his knee causes him to linger around the court. The 33 year-old averaged a double-double this season, posting 21 points a game to go along with 10.7 assists (good for second most in the league). Good thing Boston has a reigning Defensive Player of the Year to give him fits. Marcus Smart is going to go at Harden with a bulldog-like intensity and I believe he will fluster Harden multiple times throughout this series. Even if Harden gets Smart into foul trouble, the C's have guard depth to eradicate that potential problem. Look for Derrick White and Brogdon to take turns against Harden as well. These guys just had to follow Trae Young all around the court last series. Expect Harden to get similar treatment.
Joel Embiid vs Boston's Bigs
This one is a no-brainer. Joel Embiid is most likely going to win MVP this season and has given the Celtics problems this year. He averaged 36.8 points against them, which includes a 50-point explosion in the final regular season matchup between these two teams. The Celtics are very much aware of his talent, so much that they put in Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter of Game 5 against the Hawks to prepare him for potential minutes against the Sixers' All-Star. Al Horford has been the main guy in guarding Embiid throughout the matchups this season, but look for Grant Williams to get some action against the big man as well.
I am confident in my Celtics getting past Philly in this one, but no team can be taken lightly in the playoffs (just ask the Bucks). This is going to be another step in getting back to the Finals for this team.
*This isn't actually a true rivalry, don't let your Philly friends fool you. They just hate us because we always beat them. Since 2017-18, we have beaten them twice in the postseason, winning 4-0 and 4-1.
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- W. Monast