76ers-Celtics Series Preview: Can Philly be competitive without Simmons? Boston’s starting 5 is special

I don’t know if this will turn out to be the best series, but it definitely has the best story lines.

The “Al Horford Revenge” series. The “How Good is Philly Without Ben?” series. The “Is This Brett Brown’s Last Series?” series.

All those angles are Philly-focused, but Boston should be the bigger story.

Boston has all the makings of a championship team. They’re young, skillful, well coached, and team oriented. You won’t find a selfish guy in their rotation.

The two teams linked up four times during the regular season with the 76ers winning three.

  • Philadelphia 107 – Boston 93
  • Philadelphia 115 – Boston 109
  • Philadelphia 109 – Boston 98
  • Boston 116 – Philadelphia 95

Looking at those outcomes, you would think the 76ers have the upper hand in the series. And maybe they would if Simmons were healthy. But heading into this playoff series, the Celtics are the presumed heavy favorite.

So let’s breakdown the series. Each teams biggest question, series X-factor, and key matchup.

Can Joel Embiid Assert His Dominance?

The Celtics have one glaring flaw, their center position.

Boston lost Al Horford to Philadelphia via free agency, leaving their center position bare. Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter are serviceable big men, but far from the player Horford was for them.

Unfortunately for Boston, Philadelphia is best equipped to attack their flaw as they have Joel Embiid on roster.

If the 76ers have any chance in this series, Embiid has to dominate. I’m not talking a couple of games, or for stretches of games. No, Embiid needs to dominate every minute he’s on the floor, for every game of the series. He needs to mirror prime Shaq if the 76ers are going to win the series.

In the perfect scenario, Embiid would be able to attack Kanter and Theis one on one. But Brad Stevens is too smart of a coach to allow the 76ers only superstar to dominate the singular matchup.

Embiid is going to see double teams, help defense, and tons of fouls, before the Celtics let him get to the rim. So the question remains, can Embiid dominate before the Celtics defense gets set, and can he handle the excessive attention he will be getting without Simmons on the court to help run the show?

It remains to be seen. But it will be the deciding factor for the 76ers this series.

Close By Committee or Give it to Tatum?

The best thing about the Celtics is their ability to get 20 plus points by 5 different guys on any given night. Whoever has the hot hand usually leads the show for the night. But I am also wise enough to know that in the NBA, on the biggest stage, you need that single guy to carry the torch.

The Celtics appear to have that in Jayson Tatum, but he hasn’t actually done it on a large scale yet. I fully expect him to grow into that role, and be the face of the Celtics for the next 12 years. He’s that generational talent every team looks for.

But the way the Celtics have played all year long has been by committee. So will Brad Stevens loosen the chains on his young superstar to take over in the clutch? Or will it continue to be by committee?

For this series I don’t think it matters because the Celtics have the clear upper hand and should winner rather easily. But it would make sense to use this series to lay out the foundation going forward.

Personally I like the by committee approach through 3 and a half quarters. You hit teams from every direction, tiring out the opposing defenders. But the final 4 minutes of the game I would like the ball to be in Tatum’s hands, attacking the weak wing defenders of the 76ers. It could give Tatum the extra boost in confidence, fully handing him the keys ti the franchise as the Celtics chase the title this year.

X-Factor: Tobias Harris

Without Simmons, and all the attention on Embiid, Tobias Harris needs to play like the $180 man the 76ers made him.

Harris has long been a good scorer in the league, but it needs to be turned up to a new level in this series. He can not have 18 point games if the 76ers are going to win. Harris needs to be in the mid 20’s every game, and play good enough defense on either Tatum, Brown, or Hayward.

Key Matchup: Joel Embiid vs Daniel Theis

As mentioned earlier, this is a very uncomfortable matchup for the Boston Celtics.

Playoff series are all about matchups, and the matchup of Joel Embiid against Boston’s makeshift center rotation looms large.

The one big man Boston trusts, Daniel Theis, averaged 6.7 fouls per 100 possessions; pitted against the elite foul-drawing of Embiid, his stints may be brief. That leaves Boston turning to the physically robust but defensively shaky Enes Kanter, or rolling with talented but undersized and erratic Robert Williams.

If Theis is going to get into foul trouble early and often, the Celtics could run into games where they have no answer at all for Embiid and even Al Horford. Theis is at least a capable defender, despite being undersized.

Kanter, his back up, is arguably the worst defensive big in the league. Boston can not afford to have Kanter on Embiid for long stretches. Williams, the third head in this center battle, is far from ready to take on Embiid.

To avoid a complete defensive meltdown for Boston, Theis has to play smart on defense, even if that means giving Embiid some easy baskets to avoid early foul trouble.


The series won’t be a comfortable one for the Celtics, but it should be a short one. I’m counting on Embiid to dominate and steal a game in the series, but Brad Stevens won’t let that happen 4 times.

The fire power of Tatum, Brown, Hayward and Kemba is too much for the 76ers to match.

Boston wins in 5 games.

In Case You Missed It

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Rockets-Thunder Series Preview: Westbrook’s injury looms large and CP3 Revenge series

Clippers-Mavericks Series Preview: Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic and a whole lot of scoring

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