With Philadelphia’s sweep over the Nets and Boston’s 4-2 series win over the Hawks, the 76ers and Celtics are due for a seven-game series in the second round of the 2023 NBA Playoffs.
The longtime rivals both go into the series with continued championship aspirations; the winner of the series’ chances of reaching the NBA Finals will be high.
But the 76ers are known for their struggles against Boston. If they are going to win this series, they’ll have to play some of their best basketball of the year.
It will also be one of the most pivotal series in Philadelphia’s history; a loss in this series could have serious consequences for the futures of James Harden, Doc Rivers, and possibly even Joel Embiid with the 76ers.
Here are five keys for Philadelphia to finally beat the Celtics in the playoffs this time around.
Joel Embiid Being at Nearly-Full Health
The first, and easily most important, key for Philadelphia to take down Boston is the health of their star big man, Embiid.
Embiid missed Game 4 of the first-round series against Brooklyn after injuring his knee, and has been recovering since. His status for Game 1 of Round 2 on Monday is still unknown.
Everything Philadelphia does offensively and defensively revolves around the big fella. And quite frankly, they won’t have the firepower to take down the Celtics without Embiid near 100%.
Take for example the 76ers only win over Boston this season: Embiid scored 52 points and put the team on his back just to barely sneak by with a win. Without him, the Celtics can score in the paint much easier and don’t have to worry about Philadelphia’s top scorer.
While his record against them may not show it, Embiid also usually finds success against the Celtics. The problem is that his teammates fail to step up when they need to.
Getting Embiid healthy is priority No. 1. This series won’t be close unless he’s somewhat close to his full-potential.
James Harden Scoring With Aggressiveness, Efficiency
Assuming Embiid is healthy, the focus turns toward the 76ers’ second star, Harden.
Throughout his 76ers tenure, he’s always been one of the league’s best passers. But that sometimes isn’t enough, and Philadelphia needs him to be aggressive in driving to the rim, collapsing defenses and making shots himself.
He struggled to do so in Round One. Strangely, he was a fantastic volume three-point shooter against the Nets, but couldn’t make a shot at the rim to save his life.
That has to change against Boston. The Celtics have too many good perimeter defenders for him to get away with only shooting threes.
Another key point for Harden: in Round 1, the Celtics couldn’t stop the Trae Young-John Collins pick and roll at all, which led to Atlanta winning two games despite being an inferior opponent.
The Harden-Embiid pick and roll has so many more elements to it, and could be unstoppable this series. It should be used almost every possession when the two are on the floor, and it’ll help Harden get better looks.
Tobias Harris & Tyrese Maxey Continuing First-Round Flow
In four games against the Nets, Tobias Harris and Tyrese Maxey both averaged over 20+ points and 5+ rebounds per game.
When those two are cooking, the offense runs a lot easier; they can get open looks off of Harden and Embiid, run in transition and attack the rim.
Harris and Maxey will need to continue that rhythm into the series with Boston. Maxey has struggled against the Celtics in the past, so him continuing to let it fly from deep and using his speed and finishing ability could be a big breakthrough.
Harris, meanwhile, has struggled to maintain a consistent role in the offense this season, but really showed up in Round 1. He was physical and decisive; if he continues both of those qualities, he can give the Celtics some trouble.
As mentioned, the Harden-Embiid pick and roll should be the staple of the offense. Maxey and Harris can capitalize on that by knocking down their open looks and bringing energy.
Defensively, neither are fantastic, but once again, if they play smart and physical basketball and play the passing lanes, they can be huge X-Factors for Philadelphia.
Quick Rotations Defensively on Celtics’ Shooters
Focusing more on the Celtics’ offense, the potentially most difficult aspect to stop is their shooting. In the regular season, they ranked second in the league as a team with 16.0 threes made per game.
Boston will make the extra pass to an open shooter almost every time, making them incredibly difficult to guard. When you bring help on Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, they will find a shooter will ease.
On top of that, Boston has a plethora of good shooters; among them are Derrick White, Al Horford, Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams and Sam Hauser.
For the 76ers, that means rotating as quickly as possible onto those shooters. It’s OK to bring help on Tatum or Brown occasionally, as they’re two of the best scorers in the league. But when you do it too much, they make you pay.
Every 76ers defender is going to have to be locked in on defending the three-point line.
If Philadelphia slows down the Celtics’ shooting from deep, they will have a much better chance at taking the series. But that’s easier said than done.
Perimeter Defenders Slowing Down Jayson Tatum & Jaylen Brown
As mentioned, Tatum and Brown are willing passers against double teams. The conundrum that makes Boston so difficult to defend is that both are among the league’s few strong, crafty wings that can create their own shot from anywhere on the floor.
Outside of quick rotations on shooters, the 76ers will need to disrupt both Brown and Tatum. When one or both are in rhythm, they’re nearly unstoppable.
PJ Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, Jalen McDaniels and Harris will have their hands full with the Celtics’ star duo. Those four will likely be the best one-on-one matchups for Tatum and Brown from the 76ers’ point of view.
Having Embiid to protect the rim (assuming his health) will also be a huge bonus, and can help the 76ers wings defensively.
Matchup-wise, putting Tucker on Tatum makes the most sense. He has the most experience guarding stars, and has the strength and intensity to keep Tatum out of flow. That leaves Melton, McDaniels and others to handle Brown.
Holding the Boston offense is going to be a huge challenge for Philadelphia. To advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, they’ll have to be smart, physical and engaged on every possession.
Featured image courtesy of David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images
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