With the Milwaukee Bucks out of the picture, this Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics series feels like it could be the real Eastern Conference Finals (the winner of Sixers vs. Celtics will be heavy favorites over the Heat or Knicks).
That should have fans energized for a showdown between two of the three best teams in the NBA, but concerns about Joel Embiid‘s knee and status at the start of the series cast a shadow over everything. The Sixers are lost without him.
Here are three things to watch in a fascinating 76ers vs. Celtics showdown.
1) Does Joel Embiid play? How limited will he be if he does?
The entire series could swing on the answer to those questions. Any chance Philadelphia has in this series is rooted in MVP-level Joel Embiid being the best player on the floor in at least four games. That’s what he did six weeks ago, Embiid dropped 52 and the 76ers hung on to beat the Celtics.
JOEL EMBIID 50 PIECE 🗣️
— NBA (@NBA) April 5, 2023
Embiid has a sprained lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and, as of this writing, is officially listed as “doubtful” for Game 1. However, the comments from Doc Rivers and the reports coming out of Philadelphia suggest he will not suit up for Game 1 and could miss Game 2 in Boston (and he could be out longer than that).
The questions are if/when Embiid returns, and when he does how limited is he?
You can be sure whenever Embiid does step on the court the Celtics will test him. Al Horford and other Celtics bigs (outside Robert Williams III) can space the floor and make Embiid cover ground. He will be dragged into pick-and-rolls. Defensively, Boston’s philosophy has been to largely single-cover Embiid and stay home on the shooters, making the likely MVP beat them.
A healthy Embiid can beat the Celtics, but if he is less than 100% the 76ers have a nearly impossible task.
2) James Harden and Tyrese Maxey have to defend well
One of the reasons the Celtics are such a problem is the wealth of shot creators they put on the floor: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon all can create for themselves and others. All also work well off the ball, as do Al Horford and Grant Williams.
That’s a lot of weapons. P.J. Tucker will defend one of the Jays for stretches. De'Anthony Melton and Jalen McDaniels could see a bump in minutes because Doc Rivers seems them his best defensive options. After that, it’s Tobias Harris on the wing.
And then there’s Harden and Maxey. Neither are strong on-ball defenders, both need to play heavy minutes to keep the 76ers’ offense going (especially with Embiid out), and both will be targeted. Boston’s shot creators will go hunting for matchups they like, and you can bet the two 76ers guards are at the top of that list.
In the second round and beyond in the playoffs, it can be as much about a team’s weakest links — and with that places to attack — as it is about how well a team’s stars perform. The 76ers have clear places to attack and if Embiid is not behind them as a rim protector, this could get ugly.
3) Will the Celtics be focused or coasting?
For the final five minutes of Game 6 against Atlanta, the Boston Celtics showed a swarming defense, a 3-point bombing offense that can get to the rim, and a depth of talent few teams could match — they looked like the best team in the NBA. A champion. The Hawks were overwhelmed and faded away.
The problem is we only see those Celtics in flashes. It’s been that way all season. The talent is there, the focus comes and goes. Case in point, the Celtics’ defense — ranked third in the NBA over the course of the regular season — gave up 121.3 points per 100 possessions to the Hawks in the final four games of their first-round series (11.8 points per 100 higher than the Celtics’ regular season average). Give Trae Young and an impressive Hawks offense credit for some of that, but Boston was in and out of focus defensively in that series.
The lack of focus was most evident in Game 5, when the Celtics could have closed out the Hawks series at home — leading by around 10 for most of the second half — but they never put Atlanta away and paid the price for it with a loss. This is a Celtics team that plays with its food.
They can’t do that against Philly, the 76ers are a talented team even with a limited Embiid. Boston must show a killer instinct and put Philadelphia away if they can.
Prediction: Celtics in 5. I would have picked Celtics in 7 if Embiid were healthy and playing near his peak, but because my sense is he will miss a couple of games and then be limited, the Celtics are the easy choice here. This wasn’t a good matchup for Philly under the best of circumstances.