Discover more from Celtics Film Room
Another battle against a familiar foe
Tonight, the Boston Celtics go back into battle against the Philadelphia 76ers
As two teams who entered a rebuilding phase around the same time, the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers’ core rosters have become incredibly familiar with each other. Yet, only one team has the mental edge, and that is Boston.
Throughout the current phase in each team’s life cycle, the Celtics have routinely dispatched the challenge of the Sixers, despite the star presence of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons (for a while), and James Harden. You can point back to the confetti game. Or to the Sixers acquiring Al Horford via free agency in a ‘can’t beat them, sign them’ move. Or, more recently, the Celtics’ dismissal of their conference foes on three of the four occasions they faced each other this season.
Yet, for all of the recent history between these two sides, you should take the Sixers lightly at your own peril, well, if Joel Embiid is healthy, at least. This past off-season, the Sixers made it their mission to retool their roster, and create a more robust, diverse rotation, in the hopes of finally giving Embiid the supporting cast he needed to help lead his team to the promised land.
In came PJ Tucker, De’Anthony Melton, and Danuel House Jr, quickly followed by James Harden re-signing with the franchise after taking a pay cut to allow for roster improvements. There have been the internal development of Tyrese Maxey and the re-defining of roles for Tobias Harris. All steps in the right direction that had the Sixers looking like genuine championship contenders.
Yet, it’s not like the Celtics stood still, either. Fresh off their NBA Finals loss, Brad Stevens moved quickly to fill a need on the bench, bringing in Malcolm Brogdon to provide ball-handling, creation, and an offensive spark — a move which worked out well, considering Brogdon was recently named as the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Sam Hauser improved his all-around game, Grant Williams (at times) flashed a diverse offensive skillset, and Derrick White evolved into a genuine third option as the season wore on. And, of course, the Celtics already had two genuine stars in Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, both two-way wings with skillsets that are as complementary as mash and gravy.
As such, the Celtics retained an edge over the Sixers, yet they were still in a three-horse race for the right to represent the Eastern Conference in the 2023 NBA Finals. Fortunately for both the Sixers and Celtics, the Milwaukee Bucks were a shock first-round exit, and now, the other two conference titans will do battle, clearing the way for the winner to potentially have a free run at a championship series.
Yet, while the Celtics come into the series with a full-strength roster, the Sixers are down an MVP candidate as Embiid continues to recover from an LCL sprain — an injury that could force him to wear a knee brace when he’s finally cleared to return to the court.
“Source confirms Joel Embiid has a sprained LCL. He may have to wear a brace for the knee when he returns. There is some hope that he can play towards the beginning of the Sixers second round series, but he will be playing through a knee injury @ramonashelburne was first,” NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark reported on April 25.
Without a healthy Embiid, the Sixers’ hopes are winning four out of seven games against the Celtics are slimmer than my hopes of becoming a real-life X-man, and believe me, I really wanna be an X-Man.
With the backstory out of the way, I thought it would be a fun exercise to start diving into the weeds of this series, starting with the Derrick White vs. Tyrese Maxey matchup.
The hidden key
As we come into the series, a lot of discussions in the national media will focus on the star talent of Harden, Tatum, Brown, and, if available, Embiid. Nevertheless, I believe that a true swing factor could be the matchup between Maxey and White, as both play an integral role for their respective teams.
For all of the talent on the Sixers, Maxey is the only player within their core roster that can play an up-tempo style of basketball and is at his best in the open court. Yet, the Sixers use Maxey as a diverse scorer, with his shot profile being evenly distributed across all three levels.
31% of his attempts came at the rim this season, 32% in the mid-range, and 37% from the perimeter.
With good size and physicality, Maxey is capable of plowing his way to the rack or fighting over screens as he looks to receive a pass or initiate an action as the ball-handler.
However, Derrick White has had Maxey’s number this season.
In their first meeting of the season, on October 18, 22, White guarded Maxey for 24.8 partial possessions, limiting him to 2-of-5 shooting from the field and 1-of-3 from deep.
In their second encounter, on February 8, 23, White held Maxey to 1-of-8 shooting from the field and 0-of-1 from the perimeter throughout 12.8 partial possessions.
Just two weeks later, the pair went back at it on February 25, 23, where White put the clamps back down, allowing Maxey to shoot 2-of-4 ad dish out two assists in 15.6 partial possessions.
And finally, on April 4, White forced two turnovers and held Maxey to 2-of-5 shooting and 1-of-3 from deep.
Overall, it’s safe to say that White has contained the threat of Maxey throughout the regular season, limiting his impact as a scorer and secondary or tertiary facilitator. But wait! There’s more.
Maxey might have all the physical tools to be a high-level defender at the NBA level, but currently, things haven’t clicked for him on that end, leading the Sixers to hide him on the weakside corner during half-court actions.
As the series progresses, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Celtics started hunting Maxey in the half-court, running multiple screening actions to see how he fares when trying to guard some of the Celtics’ more diverse scoring options - either in isolation or as part of a motion offense.
Given White’s importance and impact throughout the series against the Hawks, it will be interesting to see whether he can sustain that level of performance while locking down one of the Sixers’ more explosive players, thus limiting their ability to change tempo on the fly.
The Embiid Question
Let’s be honest; this question is the true swing factor of the series. Not just whether Embiid will play but also what impact his injury will have on his ability to dominate a game. And how limited will his movement be when changing directions or exploding to close space on contests?
When healthy, Embiid has a difficult enough time defending the Celtics, as his drop defense affords far too much room for Boston’s offensive players to get their shots off and to attack close-outs. We’ve also become accustomed to Tatum getting downhill and challenging Embiid around the rim in a battle of finesse vs. power.
With limited mobility, Doc Rivers’ hands are going to be tied. There’s no way he will be tasking Embiid with playing up to the level of the screen or executing an up-to-touch defensive strategy. Instead, he will likely look to protect his star player by asking him to sit back and defend the rim, which could be a recipe for disaster.
Offensively, you’ve got to question how involved Embiid will be as a screener. Will Rivers put his star player in a position to take the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with setting countless screens during a playoff game? Will Embiid be asked to dominate the offense glass, at risk of landing funny and further straining his knee? Or, will Embiid be a hub for those around him, receiving nail or elbow entry passes and then allowing actions to unfold around him before picking the best path forward?
Unfortunately, we’re not going to get any of these answers until Embiid makes his series debut, which looks unlikely to be any time soon, as Shams Charania reported earlier today that Embiid had undergone a platelet-rich plasma treatment to help the recovery of his knee - the same treatment Robert Williams received in October of last year.
“He is doubtful right now. Everything with Joel Embiid is fluid; he’s a warrior, it’s playoff time. I’m told he did have PRP treatment last week in that knee,” Charania said on a May 1 episode of FanDuel Tv’s Run It Back. “He participated in parts of practice on Sunday, which is a good step. But he has a pretty serious LCL sprain that he was diagnosed with on April 21. It was more than a grade 1 LCL ligament sprain. So, he’s done some shooting on the floor the past few days…there’s some thought around this team that it would be a miracle if he ended up showing up tonight on the floor.”
If, and when, Embiid does return to the rotation, I would expect him to be on a heavy minutes restriction - at least for the first game. And that begs the question, who has been playing the five in his absence?
The answer is Paul Reed. Which, in turn, has forced the Sixers to become more of a five-out offensive team. The issue here is the Sixers don’t possess a ton of dribble penetration outside of Harden, and their pace (27th in the regular season and dead last in the playoffs) is not conducive to a modern perimeter-based offense.
Sure, even without Embiid, the Sixers were able to secure the sweep against the Brooklyn Nets, but Boston’s defense is a totally different challenge, and won’t be phased by what the Sixers have to offer while Embiid is recovering, or if he’s not 85% or more when he returns.
Handling Paul Reed
Reed is the type of big man that often gives the Celtics problems. An undersized rim-runner that hustles on the glass and gets most of his buckets as the mobile roll-man in pick-and-roll actions. It just so happens that he is playing alongside one of the best passers in the NBA at present in, James Harden.
Since the playoffs started, Reed has hit 14 of his 24 shots, with just three of them coming away from the rim, where he made two and missed one.
The primary takeaway here is that Reed favors the right side of the court, so you should expect the Celtics to ‘weak’ him when defending his rolls to the rim - that is, force him to either catch or attack with his weaker hand. You might think that a 24-shot sample size is too small to determine that Reed does actually prefer playing down the right, and to be fair, you would be correct. As such, here is his shot map from the entire regular season.
Yup, he favors the right.
And then you have the issue of keeping him quiet on the glass. Now, don’t get it twisted, Reed is not, I repeat, is not a physically dominant center like Embiid, but he does have a nose for the ball and the fluidity in his movement to change directions and get to his spots — good hip dexterity.
I might sound like an old head here, but boxing out is important, especially against someone who can move well and understands the trajectory of the ball. Fortunately, the Celtics are a team that rebounds by committee and boast a number of good board-getters, so while it’s something to watch, it’s certainly not something to be overly worried about.
You may have noticed that I have avoided discussing the potential James Harden matchup or how Jayson Tatum and PJ Tucker are likely to go at it in the postseason again. Well, that’s because those topics are already being covered elsewhere, so it made sense to look at some other angles here.
Of course, with the opening game happening tonight, we will have plenty to look at and dissect on Tuesday and Wednesday, where we can get nerdy with the X’s and O’s, and look at whatever else crops up during the game.
But for now, though, I’ll leave you with my thoughts above and give you some details about some other stuff I’ve been working on over the weekend.
Series Preview Podcast
As usual for our Monday episode, the ‘Three Man Weave’ jumped onto the Green With Envy podcast, with the remit being to dissect the upcoming series between Boston and Philadelphia. We go into a discussion about the talent level of each team, who the Sixers can adjust without Embiid in the rotation, and look at some of the key matchups to expect during the opening game.
Then, we draft three teams (one each) based on the remaining four teams in the Eastern Conference in a bid to decipher which teams have the most talent — turns out the Celtics won (shocker), followed by the New York Knicks, then Sixers, and the Miami Heat finished last. In case you’re wondering, my draft looked like this;
Immanuel Quickley as the sixth man
And finally, we rounded out the show with the usual vibe check — if you know, you know, and if you don’t, you’re missing out!
A Primary Action to Watch
Over the weekend, I also dove into an action the Celtics have run ad nauseam against the Sixers this series, finding some fairly consistent success. The article was published on CelticsBlog earlier today and can be found here.
The action in question is known as a stack action — here is an extract from my article explaining what that is.
“Outside of the sheer volume of threes the Celtics are shooting these days, one play that has become synonymous with Mazzulla ball is the ‘stack’ action. Put simply, the ‘stack’ is when an action involves two screens — an on-ball screen and a back screen set on the first screener's defender.
In fact, the only thing that separates the Spain pick-and-roll and the stack action is what the second screener does after making contact with the screen recipient. However, it’s also worth noting that a Spain pick-and-roll can also be known as a stack action, as it’s essentially just a variation of the play.”
I’m sure that in the coming weeks and months, there will be plenty of discussion on Boston’s primary actions, the variations they run, and whether or not they’re successful at any given time, but for now, this would be a quick-hitting article I would recommend, but of course, I’m biased.
That’s all for today! As usual, I appreciate everyone who takes the time to read this and show love via sharing, subscribing, etc. Also, this week, I’m going to take the opportunity to explore different ways of formatting this newsletter as I try to stamp a more personal touch on it. Feel free to send me your feedback in the comments section, and let me know which you like, dislike, etc.