The Celtics and Bucks will meet in Boston tonight for Game 7 of their first round series, the winner slated to take on Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals beginning Monday night. As a Sixers fan who hasn’t needed to watch basketball since Tuesday, who should you be rooting to come out on top? Let’s take a look at what each opponent would mean for the Sixers.
The Shift in Home Court Advantage
The most obvious difference between facing Boston or Milwaukee comes down to the fact that the 2-seed Celtics would have home court advantage over the Sixers, while the 7-seed Bucks would not. Tonight’s outcome will determine whether Game 1 will be played in Boston or in Philadelphia, which is a big deal based on how the Sixers have performed this season.
During the regular season, the Sixers went an outstanding 30-11 (.732) at home with a 9.1 net rating. They famously went from December to March without losing a game in South Philadelphia. Meanwhile, on the road, the team went a respectable, yet significantly worse 22-19 (.537) with a 1.7 net rating.
Certainly, the Sixers are capable of winning games on the road in the playoffs if they need to do so. In the first round, they went 2-1 with a 6.8 net rating in Philadelphia, but 2-0 with a 9.7 net rating in Miami. The disparity was likely due at least in part to Joel Embiid missing the first two games at home, but it still showed they can get the job down out of town. Still, you know they would rather have the boost from the sold-out home crowd chanting “Trust the Process”.
The Coaching Gap
Arguably no larger divide exists between Boston and Milwaukee than the one on the sidelines. There is a huge difference between Brett Brown having a battle of wits with Brad Stevens or with Milwaukee’s interim head coach (quickly googles to make sure I have the name right) Joe Prunty.
Stevens is widely considered one of the top coaches in the world, has experience guiding the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals last season, and led Boston to 55 wins this year despite a rash of injuries and the absence of arguably the team’s top two players in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Prunty took over for the fired Jason Kidd in January and (googles again) was the head coach of Great Britain’s national team. I’m sure Prunty is a swell guy, but I’d much rather see him on the opposing sidelines than deal with whatever schemes and adjustments Brad Stevens would devise in a series against the Sixers.
One such tweak to think about is that the Bucks are at their best when Giannis plays point-center in their version of a death lineup. Their two most frequently used such lineups during the playoffs have net ratings of 24.3 and 26.9 across 16 minutes of action. It stands to reason that those lineups wouldn’t be usable when Embiid is on the court, as he would punish the Bucks in the post and can fairly navigate his way against a weaker perimeter player. Would Prunty find a way to work that lineup in when Embiid is on the sidelines?
How the teams stacked up
The Celtics were 6th in the NBA in net rating this season (5.2), while the Bucks were 15th (0.7). Significantly, the Celtics were still far better even when Kyrie Irving wasn’t on the court (2.2 net rating). Boston was actually better defensively without Irving, although not enough to offset the drastic loss in offensive production, but that’s something to think about for a club that’s already the best defensive team in the league.
In an odd bit of scheduling, the final of four meetings this season between the Celtics and Sixers came on January 18th, while the first of four contests between the Bucks and Sixers fell two days later on January 20th. So both season series were played entirely at different portions of the season for Philadelphia. Here was how those games played out.
October 20, in Philadelphia: Boston 102, Philadelphia 92
The Sixers shot just 38.0% from the field, with 4-16 and 4-11 shooting performances from Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, respectively. Kyrie Irving led all scorers with 21 points.
November 30, in Boston: Boston 108, Philadelphia 97
Joel Embiid did not play. The Sixers shot 16-32 from three, but had no answer for Kyrie Irving, who dropped 36 points.
January 11, in London (Sixers “home” game): Boston 114, Philadelphia 103
Weird game where everyone seems to agree the rim was messed up on one end of the court. The Sixers shot much better than Boston in the first half and vice versa. Embiid shot just 6-17 from the field. Kyrie Irving had 20 points, one shy of Jaylen Brown’s 21 for team-high honors, and was a +22.
January 18, in Boston: Philadelphia 89, Boston 80
Embiid had a monster game with 26 points on 10-19 shooting, 16 rebounds, and 6 assists. No Kyrie Irving for Boston, who only shot 40.5% from the field as a team.
January 20, in Philadelphia: Philadelphia 116, Milwaukee 94
No Giannis Antetokounmpo for the Bucks. Khris Middleton assumed a larger role and had a triple-double with 23 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 assists. Embiid was amazing with 29 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Simmons finsihed two rebounds and one assist shy of a triple-double.
January 29, in Milwaukee: Milwaukee 107, Philadelphia 95
No Embiid for the Sixers, who shot 2-26 from three as team. Giannis had 31 points, 18 rebounds, and 6 assists.
March 4, in Milwaukee: Milwaukee 118, Philadelphia 110
The Sixers led by 12 at halftime but were outscored by 19 in the third quarter. Philadelphia had 26 turnovers, 13 by Embiid and Simmons alone, and 9 in the pivotal third quarter. The giveaways negated a 14-28 shooting night from behind the arc. Giannis had 25 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists.
April 11, in Philadelphia: Philadelphia 130, Milwaukee 95
Philadelphia dropped 46 points in the first quarter as this game was a laugher by midway through the opening frame. Both teams emptied the benches early, which was even more impressive for the Sixers considering Embiid wasn’t even available.
Looking at all the evidence, I’m comfortable saying I would prefer the Sixers face the Bucks in the second round. Boston relied heavily on Kyrie Irving’s offense in their 3 wins against the Sixers this season, but Embiid had very poor offensive performances in two of his three games against the Celtics. I think the combination of Aron Baynes’ physicality and Al Horford’s smart, defensive positioning gives him some trouble (to the extent that anyone can give Embiid trouble). A Boston-Philadelphia series would likely turn into a rock fight with a lot of low-scoring, close games.
Meanwhile, while there’s the lingering threat of Giannis possibly assuming “best player in the series status”, the Sixers just didn’t struggle as much against the Bucks this season. Their two losses to Milwaukee came in a game they didn’t have Embiid and shot a crazy bad 2-26 on threes, and a game when they were very much in control before having one of their vintage turnover explosions. The 35-point smackdown in the regular season finale would also have to offer some sort of psychological advantage.
Those factors, plus the home court advantage and the coaching disparity all lead me to root for Milwaukee tonight. Come on Bucks, a 4.5-point underdog status is nothing! Just ask the Eagles!
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com.