The Celtics-Sixers rivalry will rise again. Seeding games in NBA bubble have been a lot of fun to watch, as players across the league gain their rhythm back and coaches solidify their depth charts heading into postseason play. With the playoffs starting next week, one of the most interesting matchups in the Eastern Conference will surely be the 3-6 series between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
While the Celtics won’t have the Beantown faithful in Orlando to cheer them on, they should win this series with the Sixers because of these three factors.
The Sixers may be missing both of their stars
Expectations for the 2019-20 Philadelphia 76ers were sky-high this preseason, as a few national NBA writers expected the team to be in title contention due to the solid roster and the starpower of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The Sixers were far from title contenders all season long, as they struggled to mesh well chemistry-wise while managing to stay afloat partially due to their dominance at home, winning 31 of 35 possible games at Wells Fargo Center.
Philadelphia won’t get that home-court advantage in the bubble, as they will also be without All-Star point guard Ben Simmons for the playoffs, who left the bubble to get season-ending knee surgery.
Simmons would have been a matchup nightmare for the Celtics, as he could have taken smaller guards like Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart in the post, while having enough speed and length to do some damage against rising stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Embiid has always been a problem for the Celtics, as in the playoffs in 2018, even with a prime Al Horford to defende him, Embiid still averaged 23.0 points per game and 14.0 rebounds per game against a Celtics team that lacked frontcourt depth that season.
While every Celtics fan knows that they could use more frontcourt depth this season, Embiid has dealt with a few nagging injuries in the bubble, hurting his foot against the Portland Trail Blazers and his hand against the Toronto Raptors.
With Embiid’s lengthy injury history, he may not be fully healthy for the majority of the Celtics’ series, and if the Sixers have to try to compete with an ailing Embiid and without Simmons in any capacity, they’ll be fighting an uphill battle.
The Celtics’ offense has been one of the league’s most efficient in the Bubble
Boston’s starting lineup features a lot of offensive talent in Walker, Brown, Tatum and Gordon Hayward, but due to various injuries this season, that group has not gotten a lot of time during the season to gel together and get a good offensive flow going.
They have looked much more comfortable playing together in the bubble, partially because of Tatum’s playmaking ability continuing to progress.
After a putrid 5-point performance against the Milwaukee Bucks in their first contest in the bubble, Tatum has been looking for his teammates more, as the game appears to be getting easier for him after upping his assist totals to 3.6 a game since the restart.
An All-Star back in February, Tatum is drawing a lot more respect from opposing defenses after a stellar 2019-20 season, opening up more opportunities for the rest of his talented teammates, as he told Taylor Snow of NBA.com.
“I’m drawing a lot of attention on isos and especially on the pick and roll,” Tatum said after last Friday’s win against Portland. “[Opposing defenses] are blitzing a lot, or at least showing up to help, up to touch, and the guy in the slot, they’ve got to cut and just make the pass to the guy that’s open. And we did that a lot tonight. Guys got some easy open looks and I think that opened the game up for us.”
The Celtics have led the league in net rating since the restart, posting an impressive offensive rating of 119.8, good enough for third since the restart.
The Sixers have been one of the better defensive teams in the league all season, but with as efficient and spread out the scoring has been for Boston lately, they will have their work cut out for them.
Jaylen Brown is finally clicking offensively
While Jaylen Brown has always amassed points from his fierce defense and underrated off-ball cuts, he hasn’t shot the ball from deep as much most NBA wings, averaging just over 3 three-point attempts in his first three professional seasons.
Brown has been letting it fly down in Orlando, averaging a team-high 8 three-point attempts a game.
While he is only making a little more than 36 percent of those threes, Brown’s numbers haven’t dipped that much, compared to his regular season percentages in past season, with him shooting more than twice as many threes, which is a good sign for Boston’s fan.
Brown clearly has more confidence from outside, and is getting more opportunities through Boston’s ball movement on offense.
Brown has surprisingly been Boston’s leading scorer in the restart, simply because he has become more aggressive on offense and has been taking advantage of countless open looks created by his teammates slashing through the paint and drawing help.
If Brown can continue to play well in the playoffs and take advantage of the newfound opportunities within the improved offense, Sixers forwards in Tobias Harris and Glenn Robinson III may not be able to keep up. And it doesn’t help that the Sixers lack their best wing defender in Ben Simmons, who could slow Brown or Tatum if they caught fire in these playoff games.
Philadelphia has been competitive in their games since losing Simmons, losing by a combined margin of seven against Portland and Toronto. It raises the question for Sixers fans as to if they should break up the All-Star pairing of Simmons and Embiid, who are both injury-prone and still don’t mesh well on offense together after three seasons.
If Boston stays efficient on offense, it may be a struggle for the depleted Philadelphia Sixers to win more than a game in this playoff series, as yet another season comes to a disappointing season for the City of Brotherly Love