In the regular season, the Miami Heat were one of the slowest teams in the NBA, averaging 97.75 possessions per game, 26th in the league. They were deliberate. Only 13.9 percent of their offensive possessions started in transition, 24th in the league. They entered the playoffs wanting the game to grind down.
However, in the first round Philadelphia controlled the tempo — the five games averaged 103 possessions, a pace the Sixers were comfortable with (they averaged 102.2 possessions per game in the regular season). For Miami in the playoffs, 18.6 percent of their offensive possessions started in transition, and while they were reasonably efficient in those moments, it was out of character. Philadelphia controlled how the games were played, and they won.
Now enter the Boston Celtics, another team that wants to play slow and physical. Boston averaged just half a possession more per game than Miami during the regular season (98.24 possessions per game) and they were not a terribly efficient team in transition (25th in the NBA).
Can the Sixers and their young, athletic team once again push the tempo in this series, force the Celtics to play faster, and get Boston out of character? Or, are the more disciplined Celtics going to grind the games down to a crawl against the 76ers?
It’s one of the key things to watch in the second-round series, which tips off in Boston Tuesday night with Game 1.
Philadelphia is a blur in motion — and not just in transition. They have surrounded Joel Embiid‘s post game and Ben Simmons‘ slashing with shooters and guys who work hard off screens and plays off the ball to get open. J.J. Redick, who averaged 20 points per game against Miami, epitomizes this, but in that first series Dario Saric and Marco Belinelli each averaged 16.6 points per game. Philly isn’t tough to guard just because of their stars (although that helps).
That Philly offense is going to test Boston’s defense — but this isn’t the Heat, either. The Celtics had the best defense in the NBA during the regular season, with the dogged Marcus Smart on the perimeter and the underrated Al Horford in the paint protecting the rim. (Boston will miss Jaylen Brown, who is doubtful for Game 1 with a sore hamstring.) Boston made things difficult for the Bucks Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first round and forced Milwaukee to trust its other scorers, and it can do something similar to Simmons and Embiid — this is going to be a more difficult series for the Philly stars. As they did the last series, the Sixers will need to trust they can get more out of Redick, Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova and others.
Embiid — still fighting his mask, being worn after he fractured the orbital bone in his face late in the regular season — struggled some in the regular season when matched up against Horford, shooting less than 40 percent in those contests. The Celtics also can change up and be physical with Embiid by putting Aron Baynes on him for stretches. Embiid was a defensive force against the Heat but his offense was still rusty (although it looked better in Game 5), how big a series the Sixers’ center can have also will be key in determining the outcome. The Sixers need more from Embiid. They need to limit their turnovers against a Boston defense that is opportunistic.
What impressed me most about Philadelphia in the first round was how they handled the physicality and pressure of the playoffs — they didn’t look like a young team that had won 28 games the season before (or 10 the season before that). They kept their heads about them. Boston is the next level in that test — starting with the Celtics crowd, which is a lot more vocal and challenging than the Heat fans. On the court this is the next level of test — like Miami, Boston is a veteran and disciplined team that knows who it is and how it wants to play, they are just better at it and more talented than the Heat. Even without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, this Boston team creates challenges the young Sixers need to prove they can handle.
I predict they will — I’ll take the Sixers in six — but don’t underestimate the Celtics. Brad Stevens will have his team well prepared for the task at hand. In the end, just expect all that young Sixers talent to win out.