The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics will be playing each other in the first round of the playoffs this year.
The Philadelphia and Boston rivalry is one of the most historic rivalries in not only NBA history but sports history.
The two teams have met an NBA record twenty times in the playoffs, this being their twenty-first matchup. The Celtics lead the all-time series with thirteen series wins to the 76ers’ seven series wins. The Sixers won the regular-season series against the Celtics 3-1.
The third-seeded Boston Celtics are taking on the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. The seeds would normally play a huge role in how the playoff series would go, but with all games being played at a neutral site in the Orlando Bubble, the fact the Sixers are the lower seed is no longer a concern for them.
Is that fair to the Celtics, who worked hard for and earned a better regular-season record than the Sixers? No, it is not.
But, with an unprecedented event taking place not only for sports history but for world history with the Coronavirus outbreak, there is not really much there can be done to give the Celtics an actual advantage in the series
While the 76ers wish that the advantage they are receiving was due to different circumstances, they will still gladly accept the evened playing field.
- Game One: Monday, August 17th at 6:30 pm
- Game Two: Wednesday, August 19th at 6:30 pm
- Game Three: Friday, August 21st at 6:30 pm
- Game Four: Sunday, August 23rd at 1:00 pm
- Game Five: Tuesday, August 25th, time TBD*
- Game Six: Thursday, August 27th, time TBD*
- Game Seven: Saturday, August 29th, time TBD*
With that being said, the 6’10, 240-pound elephant NOT in the room is the absence of Philadelphia’s All-Star Ben Simmons.
After undergoing left knee surgery, Simmons is expected to miss the remainder of the NBA season, per Adrian Wojnarowski.
Ben Simmons had his left knee surgery to remove a loose body in Philadelphia today and will remain there for rehab. He's expected to miss the rest of the season.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) August 10, 2020
It is a huge blow for the Sixers, as Simmons was an All-Star for the second time this season in just his third season in the NBA. While it is not the same, you do not have to go too far back to see what playing the Celtics in the playoffs without Ben Simmons would be similar to.
2018 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals: Boston vs Philadelphia
While only a handful of players and each teams’ Head Coaches remain, this playoff series just two years ago could give us a good look at how each team will fare in this year’s matchup. It also gives a glimpse into how the 76ers will play with no Ben Simmons. While Simmons was not injured during this series, it was his rookie year, and Boston’s Head Coach Brad Stevens was able to make Simmons almost completely ineffective by using Simmons’ biggest weakness, his lack of three-point shooting, to the Celtics advantage. The Celtics would go on to beat the Sixers in just 5 games.
Ben Simmons’ Struggles Against Boston
That regular-season Simmons was able to put up great numbers of 15.8 PPG, 8.1 APG, 8.2 RPG, 1.7 SPG, and 3.4 RPG on 54.5 GF% in 33.7 mpg with a +6.8 plus/minus per game. (The plus/minus per game is technically plus/minus per 200 possessions, but the average NBA game has each team receiving 100 possessions offensively, for a combined 200 possessions per game. It is basically the same thing, give or take a couple of possessions each game.)
In the playoff series against Boston however, Simmons averaged 14.4 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 6.4 APG, 1.0 SPG, and 4.8 TPG on 47.5 fg% in 36.6 mpg with a -12.6 plus/minus per game. So despite his uptick in minutes, all of Simmons stats besides rebounds went down, with his rebounds coincidentally remaining the exact same. The biggest indicator of Simmons’ poor play is the plus/minus difference. In the regular season, the 76ers were outscoring opponents by 6.8 points per game when Ben Simmons was on the floor. During the Celtics series, the 76ers were GETTING outscored by 12.6 points per game while Simmons was on the floor. That is -19.4 ppg worse than the regular season! And it’s not like the 76ers were getting blown out every game. The 76ers as a team had a plus/minus of -3 per game in that series. That means the Sixers were +9.6 points per game BETTER with Ben Simmons OFF the floor in that playoff series.
Looking at purely that series, you might say the 76ers are actually better off without Ben Simmons against the Celtics. While I do not see that to be the case at all, as Simmons as improved tremendously since that playoff series, there is no doubting Simmons was likely in for another tough series against the Celtics had he been able to play.
That being said, I still see Ben Simmons not playing in this playoff series to still be a big blow to the 76ers. Yes, his production has gone down in the playoffs against teams who know how to exploit his weaknesses (Boston and last year’s Toronto team). But Simmons is one of the best defenders in the NBA, has one of the best basketball IQs in the league, and was in the middle of adjusting to a new role that was designed to hide his weaknesses more by playing Shake Milton at point guard.
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It is hard to believe, but in just a two-year span the 76ers only have one player from that playoff series still on the team in Joel Embiid (Two if you count Ben Simmons, but as previously stated many times, he will not play in this series). The Celtics are barely any better, with four players remaining on their team for this series in Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Semi Ojeleye. There is however one other player who still remains from the 2018 series, the only difference is he has switched teams. The player I am referring to is, of course, Al Horford.
Horford was a big part of the Celtics beating the Sixers in that playoff series. He was arguably the Celtics’ best player that series. He averaged 15.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.4 APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.2 BPG, 1.8 TPG on 56.4 fg% in 37.2 mpg with a +8 plus/minus per game. He also played fantastic defense all series, especially on Joel Embiid. To 76ers fans dismay, Horford has regressed slightly since then but still remains an impactful player. His impact on the Sixers and Celtics rivalry is even larger when you consider not only is Horford’s production leaving Boston, but it is going to Philadelphia.
Another big addition for Philadelphia is Tobias Harris. Harris has really taken his game to another level since entering the Orlando Bubble. Tobias was already a great scorer averaging 19.6 ppg, but he has been scoring even more since getting into the bubble. The Sixers did not have many guys have could get their own shot in 2018, so Harris’ ability to score is a big boost for Philly.
Philadelphia also has a brand new backcourt made up of Shake Milton and Josh Richardson. Richardson has proven to be a good playoff performer already, coincidentally against the 76ers. He had a very solid playoff series against the Sixers as a member of the Heat during the first round of the 2018 playoffs. The Sixers would go on to win that series in five games. Richardson is a very intense and passionate player who provides great perimeter defense and clutch shooting. Milton on the other hand has broken out this season after being in the g-league for essentially the entire season last year. Shake provides very consistent three-point shooting and is crafty with the ball in his hands.
That doesn’t even include the bolstered bench that Philadelphia has now. In 2018, their bench was very thin and there were not a lot of players who could be trusted come playoff time. Now, there has been a competition in Orlando between players to fight for a bench role because the bench has TOO MANY good players and not enough minutes for all of them. The bench features two young wings with the sharpshooting Furkan Korkmaz, and the defensive disrupter Matisse Thybulle. The two players acquired at the trade deadline from the Golden State Warriors, Alec Burks, and Glenn Robinson III, have also been very productive off of the bench.
The four mentioned above seem to be locked for the playoff rotation. Will any of Mike Scott, Raul Neto, Norvel Pelle, or Kyle O’Quinn join them in the rotation in the playoffs?
According to Serena Winters, Brett Brown told her that he plans on using a nine-man rotation come playoff time.
Brett Brown says his mindset leading up to playoffs is to look at a 10-man rotation (which will shrink to 9 in the playoffs).
Says his bandwidth is wider right now b/c he hasn’t seen his players in 4 months, wants to give players true opportunity to earn spots in the rotation.
— Serena Winters (@SerenaWinters) July 12, 2020
Now that was said before the Ben Simmons injury, so it is possible that his rotation ideas have changed slightly since then. But by the look of it, it seems like several solid players for the Sixers are going to be sitting on the bench for the playoffs. That is one of the best “problems” a team could have.
The Celtics’ biggest addition is first-year Celtic and four-time All-Star Kemba Walker. Walker has a history of high scoring games against the Sixers back when he was in Charlotte. Walker has averaged 21.7 ppg against Philadelphia in his career. His second-most against any team in the NBA, behind the Phoenix Suns at 22.3 ppg. Walker’s career-high in points comes against Philly when he scored 60 points in a loss to the Sixers in 2018.
Pump the brakes on Walker destroying Philly in the playoffs though, ever since the NBA restart Walker has been dealing with a knee injury and has not looked like the same player while in the bubble. Walker went from averaging 20.4 PPG and 4.8 APG on the season to just 14.2 PPG and 3.5 APG. Are Walker and the Celtics just being cautious with his injury, or is Kemba truly struggling? My guess is a little of both, but it is something very important to watch for.
One of their key additions is technically not even an addition. Gordon Hayward was injured for the 2017-18 NBA season due to his infamous and horrific leg injury. (Do not click the link if injuries gross you out) Hayward has made an impressive comeback this season, putting up numbers of 17.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 4.1 APG on 50% fg% and 38.3% 3pt%. The crazy thing is, that is only good enough for the fourth-highest scorer on the team.
Daniel Theis is the team’s starting Center, but he is just an average Center, and below average for a starting one. He averages 9.2 PPG and 6.6 RPG. Theis has improved throughout the season though, as his minutes and points both gradually increased as the season went on. In the month of February–just before the season was suspended–Theis was averaging 12.5 PPG and 9 RPG.
On the bench for the Celtics, they do not really have anybody besides the aforementioned returning Celtic and pain in the side Marcus Smart. The only players who get consistent minutes off the bench for the Celtics after Smart are also returning Ojeleye, Brad Wanamaker, Enes Kanter, and Robert Williams. None of them average more than 9 points a game, and they do not exactly keep coaches up at night. Kanter is having his worst season since his second year in the league all the way back in the 2012-13 season. It’s surprising considering just last season Kanter was the starting center for the Portland Trailblazers during their playoff run to the Western Conference Finals.
- Guard – Kemba Walker
- Guard – Jaylen Brown
- Forward – Jayson Tatum
- Forward – Gordon Hayward
- Center – Daniel Theis
- Guard – Shake Milton
- Guard – Josh Richardson
- Forward – Tobias Harris
- Forward – Al Horford
- Center – Joel Embiid
If Walker was healthy the Celtics would have the advantage for the starting lineups. Now, it is a toss-up. Without knowing what version of Walker will show up, we cannot say the Celtics have the backcourt advantage with their guards. Tatum and Hayward will most likely outplay Harris and Horford, but not by a lot. The center position is of course where the Sixers dominate with Joel Embiid.
This is where the Al Horford x-factor comes into play. Who will take advantage of the mismatch more? When Horford is on defense, he will be stuck guarding either Jayson Tatum or Gordon Hayward, who are both more athletic and quicker than him. When Horford is on offense, he is going to have a smaller guy on him no matter which Celtics Forward guards him. Will Horford be able to keep up with the smaller Celtics on defense? Will the Celtics be able to keep Al Horford from getting to the basket?
The 76ers take the bench advantage. While Marcus Smart is better than any Sixer coming off the bench, he is also the only Celtic not in the starting lineup I would trust. Burks, Korkmaz, Thybulle, and Robinson III are going to be key for Philadelphia. Boston’s lack of bench depth is not a death sentence at all though. In the playoffs, not as many players play, and the stars play heavy minutes. You can live with having a rotation of only seven players. The only problem with that is if one of the Celtics’ stars is not producing that game, they have no one else they can turn to.
This is an extremely interesting and even series. The 76ers have the big man advantage with Embiid and Horford, and the deeper bench. On the other hand, the Celtics have four players who can score 20 points a game each and a great playoff performer off the bench in Marcus Smart. I can see this going either way. I say the series comes down to seven games. Most of the games will be close, and each team will blow the other team out once each.
The loss of Ben Simmons really hurts Philadelphia but I am going with the Sixers in Seven games. I would not bet the house on it, as this is not a confident prediction at all. This is going to be a close series, and I would not be surprised in the slightest if the Celtics won. Brett Brown is coaching for his job. I am a Brett Brown supporter but I do not see him keeping his job if the team loses this series. Stevens has outcoached Brown in the past, let’s see if that gets put to an end.
Although it probably is not a popular pick, I have the 76ers beating the Celtics in seven games. Yes, Ben Simmons is hurt, but Kemba is playing through injury and the Celtics do not have an answer for Joel Embiid.
This will be a very fun, close, and entertaining series.
Featured Image: Matt Slocum/Associated Press