The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics play a rather important game inside Wells Fargo Center on Thursday night. After a dominant, 115-103 Game 5 victory on the road, the Sixers hold a 3-2 lead in this series, with a chance to advance to their first Eastern Conference Finals since 2001. Boston, meanwhile, is hoping to extend its season and not fall well short of its goal: avenging its NBA Finals loss from a year ago.
Danilo Gallinari is out because of a torn left ACL. Joel Embiid is questionable due to a right knee sprain; bet the house that he’ll play. Bold, I know.
These teams have seen each other 10 times over the past seven months. There is no broadly previewing this matchup. What I can do, though, is hit on a few storylines ahead of this monumental Game 6. Everyone knows the importance of this one. I’ll spare you all the dramatization. Nobody needs it. The gravity is obvious.
Here are a few angles I’m thinking about and monitoring heading into Thursday night.
How, if at all, do the Celtics adjust their coverage on the James Harden-Joel Embiid pick-and-roll?
In Games 2 and 3, the Sixers couldn’t get their star duo connected out of ball-screens. Boston brought considerable help from the nail to deter Harden’s pocket passes and exploited Philadelphia’s spacing alignments to clog Harden’s driving lanes. A lot of possessions were pretty ugly. Over the past two games, both wins for the Sixers, the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll has run roughshod, particularly in Tuesday’s Game 5. Philadelphia altered some of its spacing principles to conflict help at the nail, Boston stopped playing off of P.J. Tucker so frequently and Harden snapped out of his two-game funk to resemble a (super)star again.
The Sixers’ elite offense has returned and they just produced their best defensive effort of the series. Boston’s season is on the brink. It has to do something differently against Harden and Embiid’s two-man tango. Does it decide to ignore Philadelphia’s off-ball movement and sit on Embiid’s rolls? Does it become content with Tucker grabbing a few more offensive rebounds if it means shrinking space for Harden? Does it see if Robert Williams III, who’s not been very effective this series, can wreak havoc as a roamer playing off of Tucker?
The Celtics missed a lot of threes in Game 5, sure. If they want to let shooting variance be the primary change, they certainly can and it might work out, given how good of a shooting team they are. But the approach defensively against the Sixers’ staple action was loudly poor; that fourth quarter strategy of devoting 3.5 defenders to denying Embiid and Harden probably isn’t sustainable as a long-term adjustment. Whether it’s schematic or rotational, I’d expect at least some sort of legitimate tweak in Game 6.
Can Boston find a way to generate more scoring chances for Jaylen Brown?
Through five games, Jaylen Brown is averaging 23.6 points on 65.6 percent true shooting. He’s shooting 65.3 percent on twos and 42.9 percent beyond the arc. When he finds scoring opportunities, the Sixers have struggled to slow him. The issue is so many of those scoring opportunities seem to occur in early offense before the defense is set. Those opportunities have dried up as the game progresses. In five first quarters, he’s notched 50 points on 29 shots. In the other 11 quarters combined, he’s scored 68 points on 50 shots.
The narrative around this dichotomy seems to be the Celtics are going away from Brown, which I don’t really find to be the case. Instead, the problem is that half-court settings reveal his foremost limitations: a precarious handle and limited passing vision. When Brown is beaming down the floor in transition, he’s dynamite. When he’s attacking in the first few seconds of the clock after the Celtics push tempo, both downhill and around off-ball screens, he’s devastating. Those are also both contexts where timely, pointed help defense is harder to achieve. That’s not a coincidence.
Last game, he had 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the opening frame and ended with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Boston didn’t go away from him so much as the Sixers set their defense quicker, contained him on the catch (shout out, P.J. Tucker) and sent help to close off his space, banking on the fact he wouldn’t burn them as a playmaker. They won that bet.
Can Brown and the Celtics discern a route to scale up his volume? Can he take closer to 20 shots, like he averaged in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks, a series he took at least 22 shots four times? Is that a viable inquiry or are his half-court shortcomings too prominent? Can Philadelphia continue to respond after his torrid first quarters?
Will Tyrese Maxey remain in a groove after his 30-point Game 5?
Finally, after a three-game slump, Maxey answered the bell with 30 points in Tuesday’s Game 5 victory. I already talked about how he thrived as an on-ball creator in the fourth quarter because of all the attention Boston devoted to Harden and Embiid. Space was aplenty and he took advantage. I don’t know how the Celtics plan to guard Harden and Embiid on Thursday night. All-out denials could be part of the philosophy. We’ve also seen how Maxey struggles in transition and trying to find gaps against this defense, his longstanding primary means of scoring.
If Brown is determined to prevent Harden from even flowing into a clean pick-and-roll, that may again lay the foundation for Maxey to run the show. Derrick White is a superb defender. He’s presented issues for Maxey all series, but the track star guard discovered some rhythm against the All-Defensive Team honoree in Game 5’s fourth quarter. Another 30-bomb should not be the expectation, but an efficient 20-22 like he contributed all year should be to alleviate pressure from Philadelphia’s stars. He clearly righted the ship in some respects Tuesday. Now, the focus shifts to whether that was an outlier this series or if he actually solved some stuff that can translate into Game 6. The key might be entrusting him on the ball more, much like Game 5’s final quarter.