Among the 27 NBA teams that the Philadelphia 76ers have faced this year, they’ve won at least once against all but two of them: the Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics. They’ll have a chance to whittle that list down to one when the Celtics venture inside Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night.
Boston’s handled business at home against the full-strength Sixers twice this season, most recently dispatching of them Feb. 8, 106-99, despite missing numerous key players. This time, the injury report is a lot cleaner for the Celtics. Only Danilo Gallinari (left ACL repair), JD Davison (G League) and Mfiondu Kabengele (G League) are unavailable. On Philadelphia’s side, Dewayne Dedmon will miss his second straight game with left hip soreness. Louis King, Mac McClung and Jaden Springer are all in the G League as well.
The Celtics enter this showdown with the league’s best record at 43-17 and have won eight of their past 10 games. The Sixers are 39-19, third in the East and have won seven of their last nine, which includes a current five-game winning streak. Boston leads the NBA in net rating, is second in offensive rating and ranks fifth in defensive rating. Philadelphia is sixth in net rating, eighth in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating.
The Celtics’ offense is predicated on a drive-and-kick attack led by Jayson Tatum and Marcus Smart. They run lots of flare and pindown screens to spring free shooters, and rank second in three-point rate (.442) and fifth in accuracy (38.4 percent). Philadelphia’s struggled at the point-of-attack for long stretches this season, so it’ll be interesting to see how it handles the bevy of dribble-drive creators, such as Tatum, Smart, Derrick White, Malcolm Brogdon and Jaylen Brown. White and Brogdon posed significant issues the last time these teams met, combining for 38 points and six assists on 25 shots.
On the other end, Boston switches 1-4, but will often resort to drop coverage or staying home when Al Horford and Robert Williams III are involved in screening actions. When I previewed the last game earlier this month, I wrote about Williams potentially defending P.J. Tucker and serving as a roamer to muck up the opposing offense. Williams didn’t end up playing, but he’s not mentioned on the injury report at the moment, so that could be a storyline to monitor this time around.
The way Boston played the gaps and disrupted Philadelphia offensively in the second meeting this season proved to be a significant factor. The Sixers being a little more decisive in their actions would help. They seemed to often back themselves into singular options on many possessions because of their glacial pace. With the likes of Smart, Horford, Williams and Brown (missed second half last game) all back, that could offset the fact the Celtics drilled 19 of their 35 threes, so Philadelphia absolutely needs to clean up its offensive process.
Harden is in a groove thus far this year against the Celtics. Through two appearances, he’s averaging 30.5 points, nine assists and 5.5 rebounds on 82.9 percent true shooting. He dropped 26 points and 11 dimes in the last matchup. The bench, however, was vastly outplayed two weeks ago. Shake Milton, Tyrese Maxey and Georges Niang were all in a funk. Brogdon, Sam Hauser and Luke Kornet, who combined for 41 points on 15-of-21 shooting, were instrumental in the win. Part of what makes Boston the league’s best team is its blend of premier depth and a high-level starting unit. Maxey, Milton and Niang will need to provide beneficial depth for the Sixers on Saturday night.
As was the case last week when the Cleveland Cavaliers visited Philadelphia, this should be another tantalizing duel between two top-four seeds playing very good basketball. Boston is the class of the East. Philadelphia has aspirations for that mantle. These teams are division foes. Saturday could be a doozy.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics
When: 8:30 pm EST, Saturday, Feb. 25
Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic