2018 NBA Playoff Preview: East Semis, Boston Celtics (2) vs Philadelphia 76ers (3)
Oh how the tables do turn. Philadelphia has been resurrecting their franchise over the last five years, while dealing with endless long-term injuries. The ballyhooed and often-maligned “Process,” cleverly-adopted by Joel Embiid as his own personal moniker, has gone into Phase 3 (advancing in the playoffs) as quickly as it jumped to Phase 2 (make the playoffs). The tables have turned in an ironic fashion because the team they face in Round 2 has been crippled by injury themselves. This version of the Boston Celtics (May, 2018) will look very different than next May’s version (yes, I will guarantee that Boston will make it back to the Eastern Conference Semis next May). But here we are: No Kyrie, No Hayward, a one-handed version of Marcus Smart, and a new-sting to the injured list, a strained hamstring to the rapidly rising Jaylen Brown.
Celtics-Sixers. The Vegas line for the series: Philadelphia -440. This means Vegas gives the Sixers an 81.5% chance to win the series. Despite the fact Boston has home court. I’m not here to convince you the Celtics will win the series, though I do expect they’ll push it to 5, possibly 6 games, especially if Jaylen Brown is able to play 25+ minutes of mostly healthy ball, slashing to the rim despite the hamstring.
Though it’s impossible to do while closely watching each game, if you zoom out and admire both teams for what they’ve done this season, you can appreciate the future fixtures of the East. LeBron’s free-agency remains the x-factor, but as long as he doesn’t choose the Sixers, these two teams have their futures laid out for them.
What makes Joel Embiid so dominant?
- footwork: Cameroon is a good place to develop footwork due to the nation’s love of soccer. This makes for the basis of great footwork.
- length: 7'0' with a 7'5" wingspan means he rarely has to leave his feet to block shots, and he smartly doesn’t bite on pump-fakes as a result
- agility: once his foot fully healed, Embiid displays ridiculous dexterity and maneuverability despite his size. He’s impossible to guard one-on-one
- the ease with which he operates with the ball in his hands (rarely rushed)
Brad Stevens will hope to take advantage of Embiid’s only real weakness…turnovers. Embiid simply hasn’t had the repetitions necessary to master the rapid-fire decision making of dribbling/passing out of the double team. Because he’s such a good finisher, he sometimes tries to force the issue in the lane, and because of his size, makes contact look incidental, which creates dilemmas for the refs. Embiid can become temperamental when he doesn’t get those calls. Stevens’ best plan is to get Embiid off the court due to foul trouble. Unfortunately, Philly has so many dangerous options that even without Embiid, they are tough to stop.
Ben Simmons is Ridiculous
In November, ESPN’s analytics guru Kevin Pelton documented why Ben Simmons might be the best all-around rookie ever. As the season has progressed, Simmons has continued to show his possibly unmatched versatility.
Ben Simmons is a 6'10" point guard, with a 7'0' wingspan, a nose for contact (his massive size and growing up in Australia might have something to do with it), and great court-vision. He has been compared to Magic Johnson and this is entirely fair. Most comparisons of young players to All-Time greats are hyperbolic and ridiculous. Not this one. Simmons has everything but a jump-shot. Marcus Smart’s defensive abilities, instincts, and pure toughness, will be put to the test.
Jaylen Brown might draw the match-up if fully healthy, as Brown has the length (if not the strength) to make things messier for Simmons vision (Simmons passes over the top of most defenders). I can’t wait to see Smart on Simmons. I’m afraid the fouls will come quickly when the series moves to Philly.
Stevens will likely attempt to use Semi Ojeleye (whose defensive versatility showed up in spades on Giannis in Game 5–7) to keep Simmons from triple-doubling the Cs to death. Can Semi knock down a few wide-open threes on the other end? Despite being a rookie, Semi has shown poise throughout the season. His career arc may be defined by his ability to hit the corner 3.
Robert Covington Everywhere
Robert Covington is one of the few Sixers who has been through the complete turn-around. He was an undrafted D-Leaguer draining threes when the Rockets added him for 7 games at the end of the 2013-14 season. The Rockets waived him at the end of training camp the following year, and he landed with Philly two weeks later. Covington does whatever is needed on defense. He is fearless, long, and strong. Kind of like a taller, leaner Marcus Smart without quite so much diving (Nobody dives as often as Smart). His defensive presence locks down the perimeter for the Sixers. Among other shooters dotting the perimeter for the Sixers (Reddick curling off screens, Belinelli waiting for the cross-court pass) Covington’s three-pointers may become a critical factor in Philly’s playoff run.
JJ Redick Never Stops Moving
Redick has been here before, with the Clippers, slicing around the half-court, whipping along the baseline, keeping his defender off-balance. At age 33, his experience and balance keep the Sixers going when their are lulls. Redick is a threat at all times from deep, which makes the passing of Simmons and Embiid that much more dangerous.
So…Can the Celtics possibly win this series?
If Jaylen Brown can replicate his performance against Milwaukee, and Marcus Smart can drain 3 threes a game, and SuperTerry Rozier can have 4 SuperTerry games, and Jayson Tatum can do just enough off-the-bounce damage to force Embiid into foul trouble, and Marcus Morris decides to take the team on his back for 4-minute stretches in which he turns into Paul Pierce with his herky-jerky turn-arounds…then yes…the Celtics can win this series.
These are two very well-coached teams with incredible mental toughness. The games will be physical and sometimes ugly…and I will attempt to appreciate both for how far they’ve come this year.
Prediction: Sixers in 6. (Hope I’m wrong)
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Game 1 Mon., April 30
Philadelphia at Boston 8 p.m TNT
Game 2 Thu., May 3
Philadelphia at Boston 8:30 p.m. TNT
Game 3 Sat., May 5
Boston at Philadelphia 5 p.m. ESPN
Game 4 Mon., May 7
Boston at Philadelphia 6 p.m. TNT
If you’d like a poetic summation of each game in this series, email me your interest and I’ll tell you about my flexible payment plan.