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Conversing with the enemy: A Sixers-Celtics preview with Tom Westerholm

Getting a little insight about Wednesday’s opponent.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Moving forward, Liberty Ballers will conduct a question-and-answer session with someone possessing in-depth knowledge of the Philadelphia 76ers’ imminent opponent. Up next is Tom Westerholm, who covers the Boston Celtics for Boston.com.

What’s one key matchup you’re keeping tabs on for this game?

I’ll be watching Marcus Smart vs. Tyrese Maxey. This is partly because I was high on Maxey coming into the draft, and I like to feel smug, but also because both guards are from the Dallas area. Smart is pretty connected to Dallas hoops, so I presume they know each other. In any case, it should be a fun matchup. (Sixers fans might also enjoy the contrast in playing time between their 2020 draft pick and the Celtics’ Aaron Nesmith, who is completely out of the rotation).

What’s been your assessment of new head coach Imo Udoka? Where has he excelled? Where are you hoping to see growth?

I’m cautiously encouraged by Udoka as the Celtics regain defensive footing. Offensively, they look a little more natural, and he doesn’t seem to make some of the unforced errors that plagued Brad Stevens at times. Udoka took over a very complicated situation with a lot of players who know each other perhaps a little too well, and he seems to have guided the team from rough to slightly smoother waters.

What’s working for this defense schematically and why has the offense struggled so much?

Udoka’s switching schemes were a little too aggressive early in the season, but he has eased off some of the more egregious ones (centers simply shouldn’t guard point guards!). He almost seems to have treated switching like weight lifting — holding up a weight much heavier than your target weight just to make your target feel lighter when you get under it.

Offensively, Jayson Tatum has been bad. That sounds simplistic, but he has really struggled — particularly from 3. The fact the Celtics are over .500 while Tatum shoots 31.6 percent from deep is a credit to the improved depth Stevens built up this offseason. The difference between the Celtics being a .500 team all season and a 3-4 seed pretty much entirely hinges on how good Tatum is the rest of the way.

At minus-11.5, Boston has the second-worst fourth quarter net rating this season. What’s contributing to these issues?

Again, this is largely on Tatum. His fourth-quarter usage is predictably high (31.4 percent, which is obviously quite a bit for a forward) and his shooting percentage in the fourth is a paltry 37.9 percent (not from three, overall).

Biggest pleasant surprise of the season?

Grant Williams, unquestionably. I was high on Williams because of his feel and potential versatility, but I started to doubt myself last season when he barely looked like an NBA player. Now he’s shooting 50-40-90, and he’s learned to defend multiple positions with good footwork and verticality.

Grant Williams is good! Draft Twitter is vindicated!

Biggest disappointment of the season?

The easy answer is Tatum, but it’s still early enough to think he could turn his shooting around at some point, and if he does, the other improvements to his game will look good in the light. Instead, I’ll note that Robert Williams has played just 14 of the Celtics’ 21 games to date, due to a combination of injuries and illness. Williams is crucial to the team’s future and has the potential to be one of the NBA’s better centers (although, certainly not as good as his opponent tonight), but he needs to stay on the court. He has always been prone to weird nicks and bruises, so his continued health struggles are somewhat discouraging.

What’s one thing Sixers fans should watch for in this game?

I’ll be fascinated to see how the Joel Embiid-Al Horford matchup has progressed since Horford was last a Celtic. I’m guessing Sixers fans will like where it is now, given how much progress Embiid has made.

On the other end of the spectrum: Check out Smart’s passing. This season, Smart has thrown three or four of the best passes I’ve seen since Rajon Rondo was on the team. He likes being the primary ball-handler quite a bit.