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Sixers and Celtics meet in potential playoff preview

Can the Sixers avoid a regular season sweep?

Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

For the final time this regular season, the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics will duel in what looks like a possible second-round playoff matchup. The 51-27 Sixers are three games up on fourth and three games back of second. Boston is 54-24, two games behind the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and three games better than Philadelphia, which it owns the tiebreaker over. If both teams hold those positions and win their respective first-round series, they’ll meet in the playoffs for the third time in six years.

Philadelphia is fifth in net rating (plus-4.4), fifth in offensive rating (118.4) and 10th in defensive rating (114.0). The Celtics lead the league in net rating (plus-6.8), are fourth in offensive rating (118.4) and fourth in defensive rating (111.6).

Robert Williams III (left knee injury management) and Danilo Gallinari (left knee ACL repair) are out for Boston. Jaylen Brown (low back pain) is questionable. Louis King, Mac McClung and Jaden Springer are all on assignment in the G League and unavailable for the Sixers.

The Celtics are not unaccustomed to Williams being sidelined, but his absence does nonetheless leave an impact. He’s their lone lob threat and foremost offensive rebounder. While he didn’t spend much time defending Joel Embiid when these teams battled six weeks ago, his ability to act as a roamer could’ve proved useful; he also tallied 14 points (7-of-7 shooting), eight rebounds, one assist and one steal in Boston’s Feb. 25 win over Philadelphia. In his stead, any combination of Mike Muscala, Blake Griffin and Luke Kornet may see a minutes uptick. Boston could also elect to trim the rotation and go small with Grant Williams at center.

Given the chance these teams meet and how inconsequential this regular season game appears to be, I am pretty curious how the Celtics approach defending Embiid. The big fella torched them last time out to the tune of 41 points (70.9 percent true shooting), 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. He proved too quick and large for Al Horford. If they go single coverage again, he might be in line for another prolific game. It’s not far-fetched that Boston keeps the scheme vanilla to avoid showing its hand ahead of a possible playoff showdown.

Similarly, will the Sixers be content to let Horford fire from deep again? They granted him considerable space, lost him on the break a few times and never worried about him burning them, even once he caught fire following a slow start (15 points, 5-of-8 beyond the arc). Another couple areas to monitor: the Celtics diced up Philadelphia via Spain pick-and-rolls in late February. What’s the adjustment, if any in the regular season, there? Led by Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon, Boston’s bench outclassed Philadelphia by a wide margin. Does head coach Doc Rivers alter how he staggers the minutes of the starters and aim to repeat that issue?

Jaylen Brown’s blend of strength, explosion and shot-making were critical to compensate for Jayson Tatum’s slow 3.5 quarters. The Sixers aren’t particularly well-equipped on the perimeter to contain those traits. Brown might be well-suited to thrive again. On the other side, James Harden went 5-of-16 from the floor and handed out some sloppy turnovers in the last meeting, but was quite effective the previous two games against the Celtics this year. He’s mired in somewhat of a slump lately. Can he round back into the All-NBA form he’s showcased most of the season?

Had Philadelphia nabbed a couple more wins or had Boston suffered a couple more losses, Tuesday could’ve been a rather riveting matchup. But with both teams nearly entrenched in their seeds and staring down a date in the second round next month, it’s reasonable to think this contest might not be foretelling of much. Regardless, their February bout was a delight and these are two excellent teams. It should still be fun with a flurry of stars at the helm.

Game Details

Who: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics

When: 8:00 pm EST, Tuesday, April 4

Where: Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA

Watch: TNT

Radio: 97.5 The Fanatic

Follow: @LibertyBallers

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