The Boston Celtics found ways to hold and without their best player in Kyrie Irving, and thus escaped a tighter-than-expected seven-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs. Waiting for them is the well-rested, Philadelphia 76ers. The young squad quickly dispatched the Miami Heat in five games behind the phenomenal play of rookie Ben Simmons, and second-year player and All-Star Joel Embiid, who both were NBA playoffs first-timers.
In the first round of these playoffs, both Boston and Philadelphia have shown elite poise from rookies in big moments, role-players stepping up and making significant plays, and some timely shot-making — all accentuated by good to great coaching and game-planning.
The Celtics, against Milwaukee, were able to get enough production from every position, on both ends, to overcome the absence of an elite-level playmaker. They will need to replicate that, especially on the defensive end if they want to have any chance at moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals for a second consecutive season.
Rookie Jayson Tatum, who averaged 15 points, five rebounds, and three assists in the series, flashed the potential of a future star in his NBA playoff debut. Backup point guard, Terry Rozier rose to the occasion for the Celtics in a significant way.
Averaging 17 points, six assists, and shooting 38 percent from the three-point line, Rozier was a vital player in the most significant parts of the series. The third-year guard out of Louisville will need to keep up this aggressive play of the Celtics stand a chance against the Sixer defense.
The Sixers who are top five in the league during the postseason in defensive efficiency with a 101.7 rating, are athletic and physical on that end.
With the presence of Joel Embiid in the middle, Al Horford – who led the Celtics offensively with 18 points, and shooting 43 percent from three per game – will face his biggest test to date in this postseason.
While he only appeared in three games the last series, Embiid blocked three shots and grabbed ten rebounds a game. His presence on offense will require the utmost attention to detail as the 7-footer is strong enough to pose a mismatch against most centers in the league, and he is nimble enough to take a defender off the dribble to the basket.
On the defensive end, the team was without its best defender in Marcus Smart for much of the series, but the Celtics executed a sound defensive scheme while getting a few standout performances from Jaylen Brown, Tatum, and Semi Ojeleye. (Ojeleye’s defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo during stretches of games throughout the series was downright impressive.)
The Celtics will be tested defensively by Philadelphia as well, a team with one of the most efficient offenses this postseason.
The Sixers had five players average over 15 points per game against the Heat in the opening round. Second in assists per game this postseason with 26 – the Celtics will need to defend Philadelphia for the full 24 seconds or fall victim to the Sixers’ efficient and unselfish playmaking.
Defending the perimeter is going to be paramount for Boston in this series. Six players shoot 35 percent or better from the three-point on a pretty healthy number of attempts. The Sixers shot 31 attempts from behind the arc against the Heat – six more per game than did the Bucks.
Simmons, possibly the 2018 Rookie of the Year, is the engine for Philly. 18 points, ten rebounds, and nine assists per game. The Philadelphia offense is a masterpiece painted in his image. Simmons’ keen instincts are in the elite category already in his young career. The 21-year-old guard on a nightly basis shows that he is possibly the most aware person on the court at any time.
Defensively, the 6’10 point guard is quick with his hands, showing great instincts in the passing lanes against Miami.
For Boston finding ways to neutralize Simmons’ control of the game would make defending Philadelphia much more tenable. However, that is a task easier said than done and it will take a defend-by-committee approach from the Celtics.
With Smart back in the fold, the Celtics go into this series with enough good defenders – Brown’s hamstring being the caveat here – to strategize a way to stifle the Sixer offense.
The #Celtics Jaylen Brown said he will have an MRI tomorrow on his hamstring.
— A. Sherrod Blakely (@ASherrodblakely) April 29, 2018
Key to winning series
The respective benches could play as the swinging factor in this series. Boston’s bench averaged 28 points per game in the first round. Philadelphia, on the other hand, got 35 points per game from their reserves in the five games against the Heat.
The Sixers bench also possess the best net rating at 9.7 per game in the NBA playoffs. The Celtics’ bench performed near the bottom of the league regarding net rating. Head coach Brad Stevens will need to monitor his rotations rather soundly if the Celtics want to keep up with Philly with the starters out of the game.
Marcus Morris averaged 13 points per game while dropping in an efficient 45 percent from the three-point line. Morris was steady off the bench for Boston, giving them a needed offensive boost. His defensive energy led the reserves, and even the starting unit at times in the series against the Bucks.
Philadelphia proved in its first series that is a serious contender and performed arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference. With Brett Brown leading this young powerhouse, Stevens and his Celtics have their work cut out for them.
Boston showed a level of resilience against the Bucks that can’t be understated. This Celtics team can quickly come in and give the Sixers a competitive seven-game series. The talent Philadelphia boasts ultimately outmatches what the Celtics bring, winning the series 4-3.
Series Schedule (All Times in EST.)
Game 1: Boston vs. Philadelphia, Monday, April 30 @ 8 pm
Game 2: Boston vs. Philadelphia, Thursday, May 3 @ 8:30 pm
Game 3: Boston at Philadelphia, Saturday, May 5 TBD
Game 4: Boston at Philadelphia, Monday, May 7 TBD
Game 5*: Boston vs. Philadelphia, Wednesday, May 9 TBD
Game 6*: Boston at Philadelphia, Friday, May 11 TBD
Game 7*: Boston vs. Philadelphia, Sunday, May 13 TBD