Tonight, the Sixers and Celtics kickoff their much-anticipated Eastern Conference Semi-Finals matchup in the Boston Garden. After finishing off the Miami Heat in just five games, the Sixers have had nearly a week to rest and prepare for a stellar Boston squad. It took Boston seven games to win their opening series against Milwaukee, so that added rest should pay dividends for the Sixers in this series. Granted, Boston is without their two best players – Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward – but regardless this Boston team shouldn’t be overlooked. They have arguably the best coach in the NBA in Brad Stevens and they still play outstanding team defense.
Led by Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris, the Celtics defense is what has gotten them to this point, and if they wish to advance they’re going to have to continue that trend. The Celtics ranked as the best team against the 3 during the regular season. The Sixers live and die on the 3-ball, as do most teams in today’s NBA. They’re going to have to get creative to open up perimeter shots for players like J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli. I’m sure Brett Brown will have plenty of sets to get his shooters open; it will just be up to Ben Simmons to find those openings and take advantage of them.
Speaking of Simmons, the outcome of this series should lay squarely on the shoulders of him and Joel Embiid. They are the two best players in this series and they’re going to need to play like it if they want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Boston’s Jaylen Brown is listed as doubtful for tonight’s game, which gives me supreme confidence in saying the Sixers will win Game 1. That’s not to say it won’t be close, but I think the Sixers will pull away in the 4th quarter. I would imagine Marcus Smart will play in Brown’s spot if he does miss tonight’s game, and that’s a clear downgrade from what Brown brings to the table offensively. Smart may be a better on-ball defender than Brown, but he is a complete liability on the offensive end of the floor. If the Sixers can force Smart to turn the ball over and Simmons gets the team running the floor early, it could end up being a long night for the Celtics.
As for Embiid, he’s facing a much tougher matchup in this series than he did against Miami and Hassan Whiteside. Al Horford is a very solid Center, and he could pose problems for Embiid defensively – especially when Embiid take his mid-range and 3-point shots. Unlike Whiteside, Horford is capable of playing defense outside of the paint and he’ll willingly follow Embiid to where ever he goes on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see how Brett Brown approaches that matchup. If Embiid can get into a rhythm early, Horford may stand no chance of stopping him.
On the defensive side of the floor for the Sixers, it’s hard to key in on any individual player. Since Kyrie has been out of the lineup, the Celtics have been getting points from nearly every player who gets playing time. In their last series against the Bucks, the Celtics had five players who averaged at least 13 points (Brown, Horford, Morris, Rozier, and Tatum) – that’s the most of any team during the playoffs. Horford averaged 18.1 PPG but I don’t see that being the case against the defensive force that is Joel Embiid. Out of those five players, Terry Rozier might be the only one who is a mismatch for the Sixers. There isn’t anyone on this Sixers’ squad who can consistently guard Rozier. The Sixer’s best bet at slowing him down is putting Simmons on him. Roco will most likely stick to covering Tatum, which leaves Reddick to handle Brown. It isn’t the most ideal scenario, but Rozier is the Celtics’ biggest catalyst offensively and poses the biggest mismatch for the Sixers defensively. Regardless of who matches up with who, Boston will force the Sixers to rotate and switch non-stop. It’ll be a real test for the Sixers defense.
We can talk about the matchups between these two teams all day, but when it comes down to it, the Sixers have the two best players in this series and that should end up being the deciding factor as to who advances and who goes home. The common sentiment when it comes to picking who will win an NBA playoff series is which team has the best player. The Sixers have the two best players, and it’s not even close. It’s hard to envision an outcome that doesn’t have the Sixers as the victor. Unless they completely shit the bed and just don’t show up, they should win this series quite handedly. It won’t be as quick as the Miami series was, but I expect the Sixers to eliminate the Celtics in no more than six games. Winning tonight’s opening game is key, because that ensures home court advantage will be in Philly. With Jaylen Brown likely out for tonight, a win seems more probable.