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Sixers, Celtics, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Terry Rozier

The Celtics’ Process proves superior to the Sixers in Game 1

Acquiring assets is only part of a process. Stick around long enough, and any general manager will eventually be dealt a good hand. A front office shows its worth in how and when they play it.

Sam Hinkie spent years hoarding chips until, finally, the Philadelphia 76ers landed on its two aces, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

The pair ran roughshod over the Miami Heat, working in tandem with the Sixers’ three-point shooters to make quick work of Miami. Over the course of this process, several assets were burned waiting for these two franchise players, thrown into the discard pile without a second thought.

In Boston, Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge started from a different place than Hinkie.

danny ainge

The Boston Globe

The Celtics’ rebuild began with the dissolution of a championship core, moving Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo for a treasure trove of assets before that unit lost its value. For years, Ainge held basketball’s most bountiful hand close to the vest.

While there were expectations for Ainge to push all his chips into the middle of the table like Matt Damon’s Mike McDermott making an early movie run on Teddy KGB in Rounders, Ainge held steady, collecting more talent and making playoff runs while patiently waiting.

Last season, the world pushed for the Celtics to tip their hand. Rumors swirled on everyone from Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol to Jimmy Butler and Paul George. Jokes were made at the lack of movement, with a running gag on Terry Rozier being the sticking point holding up each deal.

Over the summer, the Celtics shuffled the deck, acquiring Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Last night, with both absent (as well as Jaylen Brown), Ainge began to turn over his other cards in Boston’s 117-101 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

With one turn of a card, there was Jayson Tatum, driving to the rim and racing the length of the court to turn outlet passes into dunks.

On the next, there was untouchable Terry Rozier splitting two defenders by going around his back and through his legs, stupefying a waiting Embiid as he threw a high lob to Marcus Morris for an alley-oop.

While the 76ers are working with pocket aces, the Celtics are chasing a straight flush. Each card builds on the next and all are perfectly suited to each other. Only, instead of diamonds or spades, it’s Al Horford who ties it all together, amplifying the value of everyone on his team.

Jayson Tatum scored 28 points on 8-for-16 shooting, which is more firepower than a rookie should possess under these circumstances. Of course, he owes a lot of his production on a gravity assist from Al Horford.

Just as NASA uses the gravitational fields of large objects to slingshot into deep space, the Celtics orbit Horford’s gravitational field, borrowing his energy to speed up or slow down to throw defenses off their rhythm.

Here, Jayson Tatum inbounds to Al Horford moving in one direction, then quickly receives the dribble handoff moving the other. The misdirection pushes Marco Belinelli’s momentum one way while Tatum crosses over in one smooth motion that belied the sharp angle at which he changed directions.

On another, Tatum sprints towards Horford, drawing J.J. Redick into the gravitational pull, before cutting backdoor for an emphatic dunk.

Tatum is blessed with a quick first step made all the more dangerous by the way Horford skews basketball physics. Coming off a dribble handoff and then a pick-and-pop, Tatum gives the slightest of pauses to allow Joel Embiid to contemplate his choice: sell out on Tatum, or retreat to Horford on the perimeter.

That brief pause is more than enough time for Tatum to burst by him for another dunk.

Horford is talked about mostly in terms of facilitating and his ability to space the floor from the top of the key:

But, pivotal to his game is the ability to occupy defenders, like Embiid, by proving he can attack them straight on if need be.

Al Horford is a one-man matchup quandary, pulling an opponent’s best interior defender away in a support role and consuming lesser defenders when the match-ups shift.

The 76ers built a defense predicated on switching across matchups with length and athleticism to negate the most harmful actions, but almost every iteration of their tall lineups has a Redick or Belinelli to attack. Horford’s ability to fluently move from one skill to the next allows the Celtics to pick at these matchups like a scab, drawing blood time and again.

Al Horford finished with 26 points on 10-for-12 shooting while also contributing seven rebounds, four assists, and his usual brand of versatile defense.

Marcus Morris isn’t a face card, but he works as another multifaceted tool to keep matchups locked in place, posting when he can find a physical advantage:

Or, putting the ball on the floor against defenders less comfortable working in space:

Even short-handed, Boston is difficult when working under normal parameters. When the Celtics get an outlier performance from one of its support players, they can be outright dominant.

While Paul George and Jimmy Butler watch the rest of the playoffs from a couch, Terry Rozier has earned a look as a starting level point guard.

At the very least, he offers some off-the-bounce verve to the Celtics’ off-ball motion with an ability to read the court.

But, as his confidence grows, Rozier has shown the ability to move beyond the scripted play and provide the Celtics with some punch outside of head coach Brad Stevens’ system.

Rozier hit seven three-pointers, most of which were contested, scoring 29 points with eight rebounds and six assists.

None, save for Horford, are quite stars yet (and for some, if ever). But, they work in tandem as a reminder that it’s now always the hand you’re dealt, but how you play it.

And few play their hand as well as Brad Stevens.

Pockets aces are the strongest starting hand in poker, and the Celtics are very cognizant of this. Key in Game 1 was keeping the Sixers from connecting Embiid and Simmons to the rest of a hand, like Teddy KGB did to beat Matt Damon’s character in Rounders.

For much of the game, the Celtics chose to play Embiid straight up with Aron Baynes, who is quick and strong enough to absorb Embiid’s first step and hit with chest.

Even if he lacked the reach or second step athleticism to bother the counter.

Joel Embiid was dominant with 31 points on 12-for-21 shooting and 13 rebounds. But, disciplined teams can budget for the sort of damage such performances inflict if they can manage to hold the position without help—bending without breaking.

Baynes’ ability to hold the fort down just enough allowed Horford to focus on Ben Simmons, splitting defensive duties on the likely Rookie of the Year with Morris.

Horford defended Simmons on 18 possessions per NBA.com’s tracking data, limiting him to just three shot attempts with three points and an assist in those possessions.

Perhaps for the first time all season, Simmons’ lack of shooting range was a glaring deficiency. Horford is the rare interior player quick enough to keep up with Simmons’ first step, strong enough to absorb his superior second step with legal contact, and long enough to contest the ensuing shot.

Simmons, likewise, was productive with 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting, seven rebounds, and six assists. But, he also turned it over seven times, trying to step into space Boston refused to give. The Celtics’ aims are to tilt the match just enough to eat away at the rest of the Sixers’ roster.

The result was limiting Philadelphia’s pace to just 98.88, down from the 102.30 it averaged in the first round against the Heat. The Celtics also limited the 76ers to just 26 three-point attempts, down from their 31.4 attempts in the first round.

Philadelphia’s bench took the brunt of the damage, with Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli combining for just five attempts, making one. Both have been major factors in the Sixers’ success, sprinkling some much-needed shooting into the Sixers’ second-unit lineups. But, each are defensive liabilities capable of being isolated in a playoff matchup. If they’re unable to return fire, they can prove to be crippling deficiencies. (Belinelli finished with a plus-minus of –23.)

The hope for these Celtics is Horford, Baynes, Morris, and even Semi Ojelye can meet Simmons and Embiid at the point of attack while the rest of the team overtakes Philadelphia on the flanks.

Terry Rozier, Al Horford

Both teams are the result of highly intelligent and successful processes. The 76ers have the two strongest cards, but the Celtics are further along with slightly fewer missteps along the way. (Imagine these Sixers if they’d gotten anything out of top 10 picks Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel.) That’s less of a shot at Hinkie and more praise towards Ainge, who’s proven himself to be one of the best roster builders in the business from top to bottom.

All that said, there are some outliers in Game 1 that don’t figure to be sustainable (the Celtics were 17-for-35 from deep). Philadelphia is a smart team capable of adjusting on the fly with two generational talents still stretching their games.

It’s always better to start with pocket aces. But, these Celtics have already taken Game 1 in convincing fashion, and they’re not even playing with a full deck.