The Sixers and Celtics will tip off in mere hours. We still don’t have a ton of clarity on Joel Embiid’s status for the series, other than he is still listed as doubtful for Game 1 in Boston.
To get a little more from the Celtics’ perspective on things, we exchanged questions with Jeff Clark, founder of Celtics Blog. (You can read his questions and our answers here.)
1. It’s pretty obvious how Sixers fans feel about Doc Rivers. How do Celtics fans feel about Joe Mazzulla?
JC: The Celtics started the season 21-5, so you could say that the “honeymoon” portion of the season went extremely well. In particular when you consider the manner in which he took over the head job. The players really seem to believe in him, which is half the battle at this level.
With all that being said, he’s still a rookie head coach in the NBA and even the best in the game take time to adjust to the position. I’m one that believes that coaching impact is simultaneously a bit overrated and oversimplified by fans. We pick on things we can see like rotations, timeout usage, and challenges. But what really goes on behind the scenes in terms of preparation, motivation, and just knowing how to handle personalities goes a long way to putting players in position to succeed.
So ultimately I think most are cautiously optimistic and hoping that he holds up under the added stress of advancing each round of the playoffs.
2. Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon have been so awesome for the Celtics. How have they adjusted so well to a team with such an established core?
JC: Because they are connectors, plain and simple. Going back to the Gordon Hayward era, he had an underrated value because he consistently kept the ball moving and tried to make the next right play. Injuries and free agency took that away and left a hole in the roster to fill. Brad Stevens knew that better than anyone and went out and got two guys that I didn’t even think were available.
White fit in well last season but didn’t really excel for much of the playoffs, likely due to deferring too much and trying to figure out his role on the team. Suffice to say that he’s figured things out this season and has arguably been the 3rd best player this season. Brogdon is a similar story in that he knows how to excel in his role. When the Celtics traded for him they sold him on the 6th man role and he bought in right away (which paid off with the 6th MOTY award).
The Celtics offense works best when they are driving, kicking, making the defense bend, and making the extra pass. Both guys excel at all of that and it doesn’t hurt that they can shoot too.
3. We saw the Nets deploy an overly aggressive strategy for Joel Embiid. The Celtics are a significantly better defensive team. When/if Embiid is healthy, how do you envision Boston defending him?
JC: The Nets didn’t have anyone to match up with Joel, so they were forced into doubles to give themselves any chance. The Celtics simply have a lot more bigs who happen to know how to defend. So I expect a lot more single coverage and straight up switching. We all know Embiid is going to get his buckets and free throws, but the idea is to make him work for it and limit the open looks for everyone else.
Al Horford has traditionally held up well. Grant Williams has had some success as well, just by playing fundamentals and getting in the way. Robert Williams is more of a help-side deterrent but at the very least he’s another option to throw at him. If you need some additional fouls there’s always Mike Muscala and I wouldn’t put it past Mazzulla to send Blake Griffin in to take a charge or two.
With all that said, when fully healthy (or even mostly healthy) he’s the MVP for a reason and there’s nothing but respect for the player that he is.
4. Boston was second in both offensive and defensive rating. They have two star wings. They’re likely the deepest team in the entire league. If they lose, either against the Sixers or down the line, what would be their downfall?
JC: Way to tap into our darkest fears! Losing in the 2nd round after being 2 wins shy of a Championship would be a tremendous failure (basketball-wise at least; props to Giannis for having life perspective). It would certainly necessitate some soul searching and tough decisions with what to do with the roster. For that matter, a guy like Jaylen Brown might have serious questions about his future in Boston.
A common refrain seems to be that his team can beat any team out there, including themselves. Winning, however, is that undefeated cure-all for all such concerns. They just need to keep winning and we won’t have to worry about those nightmare fuel scenarios.