For just the second time this season, the 34-18 Philadelphia 76ers will square off against their vaunted rival, the 38-16 Boston Celtics. After traveling to TD Garden on Opening Night all the way back in mid-October, the Sixers will return to Beantown for their 53rd game of the year.
The Celtics raced out to the NBA’s top-ranked offense and a 21-5 start on the basis of torrid 3-point shooting and synergistic ball movement. At the time, the defense looked a little disconnected and they clearly missed sprightly big man Robert Williams III, who sat out the first 29 games of the year because of a torn meniscus. Since that hot opening third of the year, Boston has cooled off offensively and dialed up the defense to become a more balanced unit.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Celtics are third in offensive rating (118.1), fourth in defensive rating (111.3) and first in net rating (plus-6.8). Over the past two weeks, they rank 14th, fourth and third in those respective categories.
The Sixers have experienced some similar ebbs and flows on both ends of the ball, toggling between a defense-first and offense-first club contingent on who’s available and what the rotations look like. On the year, they’re eighth in offensive rating (116.3), sixth in defensive rating (112.8) and fifth in net rating (plus-3.5). Over the past two weeks, they’re seventh, 22nd and 12th in those categories.
Boston’s injury report ahead of Wednesday’s battle is rather lengthy. Marcus Smart (right ankle sprain) and Danilo Gallinari (torn left ACL) are out. Jaylen Brown (non-COVID illness), Luke Kornet (left ankle sprain) and Williams (left ankle sprain) are probable. For Philadelphia, Joel Embiid (left foot soreness) is questionable. The other three Sixers mentioned on the injury report are all assigned to the Delaware Blue Coats.
When these teams first met 3.5 months ago, James Harden delighted to the tune of 35 points, including five triples, eight rebounds and seven assists. Philadelphia leaped out to a 55-47 edge midway through the second quarter before Boston knotted it at 63 entering intermission and controlled most of the second half en route to a comfortable 126-117 victory.
Joel Embiid notched 26 points, 14 rebounds, five assists and one block, but struggled substantially on defense and surrendered six turnovers. Embiid’s issues defensively were emblematic of a team-wide problem. The Sixers’ communication and chemistry were wretched. The Celtics carved them up. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 70 points on 44 shots.
Boston’s offense is predicated on a lot of flare screens and dribble handoffs to carve advantages for its bevy of shooters, passers and drivers. Philadelphia’s execution on switches has been sporadic this year, but it’ll have to be good in this one to slow down the Celtics’ attack, which is third in three-point volume and eighth in three-point efficiency.
Last month, across a few games, Philadelphia’s defense suffered mightily when Embiid guarded a stretch 5 and was pulled away from the paint, given the rotation’s complete lack of paint protection behind him. Al Horford is shooting 41.7 percent beyond the arc on nearly five attempts per game this season. The Sixers would be best suited to keep Tucker on him and assign Embiid to Williams inside. Tucker could leverage his quick hands and center of gravity to bother Horford in a similar manner to Jokic during that recent home win against the Denver Nuggets.
As for the Sixers’ offense, Boston’s defense is quite disciplined and switches on the perimeter, though tends to play drop coverage with Williams and Horford. As often as possible, it prefers to let Williams roam as a helpside rim protector and keep him out of primary ball-screen coverage. If Philadelphia can curtail that strategy and involve him in pick-and-rolls, it could be quite the boon.
How Harden fares on switches against the likes of Tatum, Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, Grant Williams and Derrick White is noteworthy. The range in quality of those point-of-attack defenders is widespread, so Harden being particular about who he hunts is important. He’s usually good about that, too, and the offensive scheme does well to target weak links via early possession screens.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Williams is stashed on P.J. Tucker and the Celtics send aggressive nail help to complicate the dazzling Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll. The Nuggets kind of tried a similar strategy a week and a half ago, but lacked the size to produce the desired effects.
The Celtics allow the lowest opposing free-throw rate (.177) in the league. The Sixers sport the NBA’s highest free-throw rate (.242) offensively. That’s quite the dichotomy and feels like an important push-pull dynamic for both teams. Whichever side wins that tug-of-war might gain a significant upperhand.
Boston and Philadelphia are in much different places than when they dueled to begin the year. Embiid’s found his MVP-caliber groove. He and Harden’s connection is splendid. The Celtics have shifted from an offensively inclined squad back to their 2021-22 roots powered by the defense. Both have championship aspirations.
This is leg two of a long, arduous stretch for the Sixers. They squandered a 21-point lead in leg one and collapsed to lose by double-digits. We’ll know soon how they respond in another Atlantic Division matchup on ESPN.
Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics
When: 7:30 p.m. EST
Where: TD Garden, Boston, Massachusetts
Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic