The Sixers are shorthanded in the bubble and matched up against their archival, the Celtics for the 23rd time. That’s the most playoff meetings of any two teams in league history. The 6th seeded Sixers won’t have superstar Ben Simmons for the duration of the playoffs so it’ll be a tough series to steal from a third seed. We reached out to CEO of CeltsBlog Jeff Clark for some emailing with the enemy. Follow what he created at @CelticsBlog on Twitter.
These first few questions are from Liberty Ballers’s resident podcast czar, Steve Lipman and I for Jeff
Steve: Other than Joel Embiid v. Theis or Kanter, do you think there is an exploitable matchup that favors the Sixers in this series?
Jeff: I think it is mostly the inside-out game that concerns me from a Celtics standpoint. If Embiid starts to eat down low and we are forced to send help, that opens up looks for outside shooters. I fear the random games where Mike Scott hits 6 three pointers or days when Korkmaz gets hot. Also, I would assume that you’ll run some of your offense through Al Horford at the top of the key and he can pick defenses apart with that.
Steve: If you were the Sixers and trying to beat Boston, would you start Al Horford or Matisse Thybulle?
Jeff: I would probably start Thybulle to try to slow down Kemba and bring Horford off the bench to attack our second unit. Matisse isn’t going to provide much scoring, but you should be focused on getting Embiid and Harris touches from the start anyway. Horford might have some trouble playing defense alongside Embiid in this series. If Joel is on our center du jour, that leaves Al on an island trying to guard Gordon Hayward or Jayson Tatum. I just don’t think he has the footspeed to hang with those guys in space.
Steve: Of the potential options for the Celtics to play in the 3-6 matchup (Philly, Indiana, Miami) where would you rank the Sixers in terms of preference?
Jeff: I think the Philly matchup has the highest variance which concerns me a bit. There’s a chance that the Sixers get frustrated and it becomes an easy series to win. On the other hand, I feel like there’s a chance that things fit more into place in the short term without Simmons and they get on a roll. I think I might have preferred Indy since they are also banged up, but it is pretty close between those two teams. I did not want to face the Heat in the first round.
Dave: How would you rank Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward from best to worst. And how much do you trust each guy in a huge playoff moment?
Jeff: I love them all and I trust them all! Seriously, I think they each have strengths and weaknesses but I am super confident that each has a strong role to play in this playoffs. Jaylen is becoming an ideal 1B star next to Tatum and they compliment each other well. He also has zero fear of the moment or opponent. Marcus is still a wildcard. He taketh and he giveth away, but at the end of the ledger he’s always adding much more than he subtracts. Gordon has become reliable and steady. Able to fill in the cracks when the others are clicking and able to step up when he needs to make a play. He’s a coach’s dream and he’s finally 100% healthy.
Dave: Of your young core, who do you think might inflict the most damage on Philly? Romeo Langford is probably out for awhile but maybe out of Carsen Edwards, Rob “Timelord” Williams, or Grant Williams?
Not Edwards, he might be one of those quadruple A ballplayers that is too good for the G-League and not good enough for the pros. We’ll see if he can develop but if he does he’s a longer term project. So it comes down to the Williams duo. Grant is a smart, do-everything role player that will be in the league a long time. He’s just a bit inconsistent on offense right now. Robert “Timelord” Williams is the X-factor. He’s so long and athletic and he’s starting to put together better fundamentals. He could be a game changer if he can frustrate Embiid with his size. Or he could play himself into the doghouse if he makes too many bad rotations.
Dave: Oh and curious...how has Kemba looked to you health-wise?
Jeff: Kemba is looking very solid and it sounds like Brad Stevens is going to lift his minutes restriction for the playoffs. Hopefully the team was just being cautious with him during the play in games. It is something to keep an eye on long-term though.
Here are the questions the enemy had for us
Jeff: From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed like the Sixers have been pulled in two different fundamentals directions dictated by the two stars (Embiid and Simmons). It is never “good” losing one of your top 2 players, but does focusing on Joel Embiid and surrounding him with shooters help focus the offense for the better?
Steve: There is a good chance, I think, that the Sixers’ half-court offense looks a lot cleaner and more seamless with Ben off the court. While not every shooter on the Sixers is a marksman, Ben is the only player who will not shoot from beyond. Given that Embiid ought to have a good chance to dominate the Celtics’ bigs one-on-one, if/when the Celts decide to double team, smart passes out of the post should often result in open shots for his teammates. Take the Sixers projected starting lineup for example: if Embiid draws a double team and makes a smart pass out of it, one of Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, or Al Horford should be able to fire away with an uncovered three. What they lose, offensively, with Simmons gone is his devastating transition game. Few players are harder to stop with a head of steam than Simmons, who could often grab a rebound and sprint down the court to either dunk it home or set up a teammate. Simmons has incredible passing vision, and he constantly set up the Sixers’ shooters with good looks from beyond. Ben also provided a good bit of randomness, as he had the propensity to sneak in for an offensive rebound and put-back when the Sixers needed it. So, in total, Ben Simmons not playing certainly hurt the team more than it helps it. But in the halfcourt, you may see the team produce a bit more efficiently.
Dave: It will be more “focused” but I don’t think they’ll be better overall offensively without Ben. Joel and Ben had a 101.7 net rating and a 99.2 defrtg vs Boston over 55 minutes this year. Good for a +2.5 net. A quartet of Ben-Tobi-Josh and Joel posted a 122.8 offensive rating and a 101.7 def rtg at +22.3 net rating in 27 minutes all per nba.com. Ben and Joel anchored one of the best regular season starting five units with Robert Covington and Dario Saric back in 2017-2018 and the starters a year ago with Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris and JJ Redick posted an elite clip as well. I think the big problem offensively was trying to force Horford into things, but it seemed like Coach Brett Brown was moving away from that lately. The idea that Ben was going to play some power forward was intriguing. Ben’s defense creates loads of transition opportunities which helps our overall offense; his size helps things in the half court, especially when Al or Joel sits. They’ll miss him on both ends. I’m still sad about this injury.
Jeff: This matchup seems like a classic case size (Sixers) vs. speed and versatility (Celtics). Boston will struggle to contain Embiid without giving open looks on the perimeter. How do you think Philly is going to try to slow down our guards and wings?
Dave: Well, we’ve put Josh Richardson on players like Kemba for most of the year so he’ll probably start there. We’ll try to take away as many 3s as possible by sending our guards scrambling over high screens and hoping that you settle for lots of mid range pull ups once you see Embiid lurking in the paint. That might go well when Brown or Smart tries it, but maybe less so when Tatum and Hayward do it, both craftier in that middle-territory with pull ups and lobs to roll men. I can’t say I’m very confident here though. We’re in big trouble out on the perimeter. Your team seems built well and our team seems built weird.
Jeff: Al Horford was great for the Celtics and it was thought to be a huge loss for us when he signed in Philly way back in the offseason. What has gone sideways with him this year? Was it mostly fit or has he lost a step? I’m not ruling him out to be a game changer in this series but I’m also not sure if he’s a great matchup for this team either.
Dave: If I were a Celtics fan I would have been thrilled when Elton Brand and co. splurged well-beyond the price point Ainge and Co. wanted to offer 33 year old Al. Do you remember how Al came out of the gate in 2018-2019 hot, then within a few weeks developed tendinitis that lingered literally all season long? Welp... that was kind of our plight this year. He was amazing vs. Giannis in game 1 of the playoffs last season for Boston. But the rest of the series, he started to get bigger and bigger heat packs on the knee, and more and more trainer attention as George Hill and co. started to target his lack of burst and rim protection. Al kinda peaked in a loss to Phoenix for us back in November. That’s all you need to know about the signing. He maybe (?) started to regain form just before the season was suspended. But yes, he might hurt you guys. That wouldn’t surprise me. He’s such a gamer every playoffs. He wins the respect of guys like LeBron and Giannis in huge moments with his savvy two-way play. But as always, Ainge and Zarren were a step ahead of our collaborative front office group and ya’ll got out just in time.
Special thanks to Jeff and good luck to
both teams the Sixers!
 Hearing Jeff say this should come as a tremendous relief to the many Sixer fans who were prepared to be tormented by this pick that we once possessed and gave to Boston in the Thybulle deal.