The Sixers are clear underdogs in their first round series vs Boston (though +350 feels a little steep), and while this was a particularly poor matchup even with a healthy Ben Simmons, the idea of them winning is without him is untenable.
With that said, the NBA is about superstars and the Sixers will have the only one on the floor in Joel Embiid, so we’d be foolish to completely write them off. In the version of reality where they do in fact pull of the upset, they’ll need a number of things to go their way, and these are just some of the things they’ll likely need to do to make that happen.
Embiid puts together a legacy-defining series—averaging something like 32-16-5-3 on 60% true shooting.
I feel like “legacy-defining performance” is an important distinction from an “elite” or “great” performance. There are a handful of elite players in any given postseason, but the only ones who carry a roster like this to pass a team like Boston are the truly special individual performances.
Through the first four games of bubble play Embiid averaged 30 points on 19.5 shots, and poor three point shooting dulled those numbers a little. 61% shooting inside the arc and drawing 11.3 FTs in 33 minutes a night is undoubtedly elite production, and Boston specifically isn’t equipped to defend that 1-on-1 in the same way Toronto (Gasol) would be.
It’s no secret that everything will go through Embiid on both ends of the floor, and if he can put together a special scoring run and stand on his head protecting the paint then the Sixers will have a real shot to win this series.
The supporting cast shoots 42%+ from three in the series
The Sixers shot 41.6% from three over the eight games inside the bubble—second highest clip only to the Spurs in that period. In fact, the only rotation players who shot below 40% were Joel Embiid (9.1%, yikes) and Shake Milton (34.5%).
Obviously those numbers are easier to come by in the regular season, but if they can somehow replicate that shooting over a two week period against Boston then an upset isn’t out of the cards.
Is that likely? Absolutely not. But simply guarding Joel Embiid will be a handful—Theis, Williams and Kanter will all require help, and will all likely foul Joel at a high-rate—so there’s reason to think that if Embiid can maneuver constant double teams the Sixers could generate consistent looks beyond the arc. If that’s the case all you need is a hot hand or two and a little luck to replicate those numbers over a seven game series.
Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle stifle Boston’s spread high-ball screens for Kemba (force him left, and off the three-point line)
The bread and butter of Boston’s attack is their motion offense, but the ability to unleash Kemba with ball-screens in a spread offense is what takes their potential over the top. He’s one of the best pick-and-roll scorers in the NBA (2nd in PPP to Lilliard, 1st in eFG%), and he looks to shoot bombs off the dribble (36.5% on 5+ pull-up attempts per game).
Boston is one of the most efficient screening teams in the league, and both J-Rich and ‘Tisse will be given the task of fighting through those and making Kemba uncomfortable. Given that they’ll be running through multiple ball screens at a time, and the fact that Kemba doesn’t really even need a screen to shake his man lose, this job is next to impossible for anyone but the league’s best “stoppers.” However, if Josh and Matisse can platoon these duties and keep Boston’s spread attack in check it’ll go a long way in simplifying their game plan defensively.
Brad Stevens has limitless options to attack a defense, but taking the Kemba-powered spread attack off the table really takes enough spark out of this offense to make the series manageable.