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After Waiting All Season, The Time Has Come For The Celtics To Once Again Step Up And Bury The Process

Maddie Meyer. Getty Images.

In the history of the NBA, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers have played 109 playoff games with the Celts leading 62-47 in terms of wins. The last time we saw the Sixers win a series between these two teams was 1982, only to lose to the Lakers in 6 in the NBA Finals (the Sixers won the next year). 

In the Tatum/Brown Celtics era, these two franchises have faced off twice in the postseason. The Celtics are 2-0 with a total record of 8-1. By now, we've all seen the memes

Which brings us to 2023. 

A look around the landscape of the East tells you just how wide open things are. We may have thought that might be possible heading into the playoffs, but after a round, it's simply undeniable. Giannis is out, a top 4 seeded Cavs are out, and the 8th seed just went into MSG and stole Game 1. It's a nice reminder that in the NBA Playoffs, anyone can be beaten. 

This series is a little hard to preview because nobody has any goddamn idea what the status of Joel Embiid is. Doc is talking like he just lost a leg, but the team has him listed as "doubtful" and not "out", despite him basically not even running for the past 10 days. Is it gamesmanship? Is he really hurt? Is it something he can tough out and still be effective? We have no idea as of the writing of this blog.

My personal thought is Embiid plays. This series is too important. He's about to win the MVP on Tuesday. People give Embiid a lot of shit for his injuries, but he also should be given credit for how much shit he actually plays through. The knee injury in 2019, the broken face, the hand issues, more often than not we see Embiid gut it out. How productive he can be is certainly a question, but if he can be out there, my gut says he'll be out there. Maybe they save him for Game 2, I guess that could make sense since all you're looking for is a split of these first two, but a huge chunk of this series is honestly going to come down to what version of Embiid we get, if any.

From a Celtics perspective, this is important for a few reasons. For starters, it's a test of their focus. Your brain says if a team is missing their best player(s) that it should make things easier for the Celts. The Celts would like to tell you they do not believe in that logic

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Whenever the Celts lose a game, people love to play the "they did not respect their opponent card", and I don't think that's exactly true. Like when people say the Hawks series went 6 because they Celts overlooked their opponent, I simply do not agree. The Hawks won Game 3 by hitting like 75% on contested 3PA. They won Game 5 because the Celts decided to play like assholes over the final 5 minutes. There wasn't a game in that series where they didn't show up and overlooked the Hawks. They just failed to execute.

But that list from Grande? Those are better examples of where the Celts showed up to the arena and assumed they were going to win just by waking up that day. The OKC/PHX/MIA/UTA/WSH games really stand out to me personally as the exact mindset the Celts need to avoid in this series. 

If Embiid does play, it'll be interesting to see how the Celts approach him. In their series finale, when they were without Jaylen Brown and Rob, Joel Embiid cooked this defense. There weren't too many doubles, we saw a lot of Grant vs Joel in single coverage, and as a result, things did not go great

It took all that for a fully healthy Sixers to beat the shorthanded Celts by 2 points. Given his injury, it feels a little aggressive to expect another 52 point outing on 20-25 (12-13 FTs) shooting. We have no idea if Embiid can even play the 39 minutes he did in that game. 

Despite their history, the Celts have had an Embiid problem basically the entire season. In 4 games this year, Embiid put up 36.8/11.8/4.3 on 61% shooting with 47 FTA. So how did the Sixers end up going 1-3, losing multiple times against a Celts team that was often without multiple key rotation players? 

Because when you play PHI, it's not really about stopping this version of Embiid. Nobody is really stopping him offensively. It's about exposing the rest of the roster and making their weaknesses beat you. Now with a hobbled Embiid, the production of the Sixers' "others" becomes even more important, and this is where the Celts potentially have the advantage.

For the sake of this blog, let's just remove the Embiid element because it's such an unknown or at the very least, we're not getting 100% Embiid. This is going to have to change how the Sixers play, and how the Celts are going to have to approach them defensively. Here are a couple of things I'm interested in seeing if Joe does.

Make James Harden beat you as a scorer

When Harden is his most dangerous, it's not when he's nailing stepback threes. For my money, he becomes way more impactful when he's creating for others and really putting your defense in a spot where they have to make a decision. At this stage of his career, he looks like a guy that is more comfortable being a table setter than a guy who is ready to put a team on his back and turn the clock to his Houston years.

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In the first round against BKN, Harden shot just 34/42%. He was in the 20%'s in the paint and at the rim, and he took 16.8 FGA which was the most shots in the playoffs we've seen Harden take since 2019-20. If Embiid is out/hobbled, James Harden's offensive production now becomes the most important part of the Sixers' puzzle. He can't just sit back and facilitate, he's going to have to score and he's going to have to be efficient. Given the different perimeter defenders, the Celts can throw at him, let's see if Harden can consistently win those battles. Nothing we've really seen so far suggests he's ready to do that.

Limit Tobias Harris Post Ups

The Sixers were 12-5 without Embiid this season, and if you watched those games you probably saw a common theme. More often than not Tobias Harris is the guy who steps up offensively, and it usually comes via the same approach. He wants to back you down, get into the paint/10ft aream and then use a turnaround jumper.

So far in these playoffs, Tobias Harris ranks in the 100th percentile in Post Up offense. He's averaging 1.80 points per possession, shooting 77.8%. He's scored on 80% of his post ups, which is a pretty glaring number. 

So fat this season, Harris has had 2 good games and 2 stinkers against the Celts. He had just 5 points on 2-8 shooting in their most recent game (Sixers win), but was much better in their first meeting after the deadline with 19 points on 8-12 shooting (Sixers loss). Those early post ups/paint jumpers are how he builds his confidence, then we usually see a corner three or two and suddenly Harris is feeling good.

This is a matchup someone like Jaylen is going to have to win. He has the size and strength to stay with Harris on the post, and we've seen him have plenty of success blocking fadeaways. The Celts wings staying out of foul trouble is going to be huge because you need length to limit Harris in that zone. Just ask the Nets.

Get Jayson Tatum easier looks

Yes, Tatum had that game winner against the Sixers in their own building earlier this year. That is true. It's also true that Tatum has not really played up to his standards this year when going up against PHI.

In 4 games, putting up just 21.0/9.8/6.3 may look good, but it came on just 44/28% shooting. That 44% is also heavily boosted by the 65% we saw in the season opener, but since then?

33.33/20%

41.2/37%

35%/25%

If the Celts are going to give the Sixers hope in this series, it'll be because Tatum leaves the door open. Under 20 points in 3 of the 4 games in this matchup, the Celts cannot get this version of Tatum. He has to figure out how to handle Jalen McDaniels' length, and he cannot settle. With Embiid out or hobbled, there is no real rim protection outside of Paul Reed. This needs to be another series where both Jays, especially Tatum, don't fuck around and get into the paint/at the rim. 

Do. Not. Settle.

This means maybe giving Tatum a few more looks to start a possession in the post. If the Sixers go zone, put Tatum at the nail and let him go to work. PJ Tucker I'm sure will get the assignment, and that's a matchup Tatum has to win. Tucker will be physical, but he's not quick enough to stay in front of Tatum as long as he makes quick decisions. It's when he gets the ball, holds it, and then tries to beat him 1 on 1 where we see Tatum get into trouble. But if he catches the ball and IMMEDIATELY goes into a move, things look a whole lot better.

Please for the love of God guard the 3 point line

If the Celts approach this series like they did the Hawks, where they were perfectly fine daring the Hawks to shoot and beat them from three, they will not like what they find out. 

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The Sixers were the #1 three point shooting team in the NBA this season at 38.7%, making 12.6 a game. In the playoffs, the Sixers are 2nd in the NBA in 3pt% at 40.6% with 13.5 3PM a night. There are lineups the Sixers can throw out there where 4 of the 5 guys are all threats from three, which is why closeouts/rotations are going to be crucial. 

A big chunk of this will come down to Embiid, because if he's out there and you double him, the Sixers have the personnel to make you pay. The Celts allowed 14.0 3PM on 37% shooting in their first round series, which was a pretty large increase from what they did during the year (11.6, 34%). With Embiid not 100%, the easiest way to compensate for that is to up your three point shooting volume, so I need the Celts to be ready for that. 

Daring guys like PJ Tucker to hit wide open 3PA did not work out in their final meeting, as that strategy is basically what helped the Sixers win that game. 

This is maybe the biggest fuck around and find out angle of this series for me.

I know there are fans out there that are doing the exact same thing we saw against the Hawks.

"Oh this will be a sweep" or "Oh the Sixers have no chance"

You know what I'm talking about. I would suggest you remember what we just went through with ATL. There are no givens in the postseason. It does not matter what things look like on paper. Guys will overachieve, other guys might have an off night one game, shit happens. That's why it's so important that the Celts respect their opponent and understand that this series is not already over, regardless of what the status of Embiid might be. You still need to go out and execute. This is still going to be a war as far as I'm concerned.

Take care of your business at home and you put yourself in a great position to advance back to the ECF. One game at a time, one possession at a time, one dribble at a time.

Love and Trust.