BOSTON (CBS) — It’s a tale as old as time, the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers squaring off in the NBA playoffs. We get another chapter of the storied rivalry in this odd 2019-20 season.
The Celtics and 76ers will battle once again in the opening round of the playoffs, with the series set to tip off Monday evening. Philadelphia and Boston have met in the playoffs 20 times overall — the most in playoff history. Technically, seven of those series came when the 76ers were the Syracuse Nationals, so we won’t really count those. But in the Celtics-76ers postseason rivalry, Boston has taken eight of the 12 series, including each of the last four playoff meetings.
In their previous playoff showdown in the 2018 second round, the injury plagued Celtics won in five games.
All of that, of course, means absolutely nothing come next week. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Semi Ojeleye are the only holdovers on the Boston roster from that series. Philadelphia has also gone through some massive roster changes, and this time around, they won’t have Ben Simmons leading the way. Joel Embiid is still doing Joel Embiid things, and this time, Al Horford will be in a Sixers jersey instead of Boston green.
Philadelphia took three of the four regular season matchups from Boston this season, but those too won’t matter much when the series tips off. Those wins came in October, December and January, with Boston’s lone victory in February, and they all feel like lifetimes ago. In bubble action, the Celtics wen 5-3 (resting their starters for the final game) while Philly went 4-4.
With their regular season in the books, Boston finished with the NBA’s fourth-best record at 48-24. Their offense was third-best in the league, they touted the fourth-best defense, and their net rating of plus-6.5 comes in second-best in all of basketball. They’re a really good basektball team, one poised to make a deep playoff run.
But they cannot overlook the 76ers, even if Philly is playing without one of their two best players.
“They’re a heck of a team,” Brad Stevens said Thursday. “Super physical, well coached, good basketball team. Everybody talks about their front court and rightfully so but they’ve got a lot of good basketball players”
Philadelphia was a matchup nightmare for Boston months ago, and Embiid is still an imposing figure and an absolute force. But the Celtics should beat the 76ers, and they should do so quickly. They can’t mess around and give Philly any life by letting them stretch the series out to six or seven games. That’s when the pressure would build for the Celtics, and the 76ers would have nothing to lose.
Here are the keys to making sure that doesn’t happen:
Superstars In The Making
Jayson Tatum has been awesome. Jaylen Brown has also been awesome. They’re going to have to be just as awesome, and likely even awesomer, if the Celtics want to be the last team standing this summer/fall/whatever it is. But first, they’re going to have to be great against Philly.
Tatum’s struggles in his bubble debut are a thing of the past. Take out that miserable night against the Bucks, and he hit 54 percent of his shots and averaged 25 points per game. Include that dismal evening a few weeks ago, and Tatum was still pretty great, averaging 22 points a game off 46 percent shooting. Now he needs to go feast on the Philly defense. Simmons was Brett Brown’s go-to guy on Tatum, but without him, Tatum will likely see an array of defenders from Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, and Shake Milton, among others. We’ll see if they have any luck.
Tatum got a lot of the spotlight this season, thanks to his first All-Star nod and an absolutely absurd month of February, but Brown should be getting plenty of love as well. He’s proven that he’s worth that giant extension he got right before the season, developing into a lethal threat on offense while continuing his growth into an elite defender. He is Boston’s best two-way player.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t get to see Boston’s young core of Tatum and Brown take on Philly’s due of Simmons and Embiid again, but the Celtics are still going to need their two young stars to play to their elite regular season level in this series.
Kemba Walker made a name for himself in college with an absolutely epic performance in 2011, leading UConn to an unprecedented title over Brad Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs. Spending nearly a decade in Charlotte, he never really got a chance to become Playoff Kemba in the NBA, playing in just 11 postseason games.
Now, he finally gets his chance to shine. And this time, he doesn’t have to be The Man in order for his team to win, thanks to that aforementioned dynamic duo, along with the mustachioed Gordon Hayward.
That doesn’t mean Kemba won’t take over a game or two. It appears as though Walker’s knee is healthy again, or at least as healthy as it’s going to be at this point, and he’s got close to his usual explosiveness on the floor. That is going to be extremely important in this series, especially with Embiid and Horford protecting the paint for Philly.
Walker struggled against the Philly defense in his three regular season appearances (which again, were roughly 12 years ago), shooting just 37 percent from the floor. Walker is great at using his small frame to get to the hoop, but he struggled against Philadelphia’s redwoods in the paint. His mid-range game is going to have to be near-perfect in this series.
Don’t Get Baited By Embiid
Embiid will still be the best player in this series, at least if he wants to be. He has a knack for torching the Celtics, and that, in turn, leads to him taunting the Celtics. Boston can’t let his antics throw them off their own game.
Though we wouldn’t be opposed to another one of these, if warranted:
While Embiid is a beast, he can be slowed and, occasionally, stopped. It’s not easy, but the Celtics have done it before. They threw the kitchen sink at him in Boston in February, and Embiid shot 1-for-11, scoring nine of his 11 points at the free throw line. Unfortunately, Embiid has made it a point to not play as much hero ball and has found the open teammate.
Daniel Theis struggles against the heftier bigs, and Embiid certainly fits that bill. Brad Stevens has to decide if the C’s should let Embiid get his, since he usually does anyways, and lock down everyone else, or if he focuses on Embiid and lets the supporting cast try to beat the Celtics.
Remember That Guy Al?
Al Horford ditched the Celtics last offseason and signed with their rivals. People were upset, but it paved the way for Kemba to join Boston, so it all balanced out. Plus, it’s hard to stay mad at Al. It’s gotta be his eyes.
It also helped that Horford struggled in his first year in Philadelphia. He became an extremely expensive bench player, but is now back in the starting five in place of Simmons. Al did a lot of everything for the Celtics over his three years in Boston, but now the question is what he’ll be asked to do against his former team.
It’ll be interesting to see whom he covers on the defensive end. He won’t be able to handle Tatum. Or Brown. And Gordon Hayward should be able to beat him off picks. It’s likely Horford will start on Theis, but then that will leave Embiid to cover Tatum or another Boston wing. None of that is ideal, since Embiid does most of his work in the paint.
With a healthy Simmons, this would have been an exciting series. Much more exciting than it had any business being. It still has the potential to turn into the rock fight, but if the Celtics play like they did throughout the season (minus those games against this particular team) and again in the NBA bubble, they should be moving on in five games.