5 things to look for during the Celtics-Sixers mini-series

All signs indicate that the Celtics will be playing the 76ers tomorrow in Philadelphia, after the Philly-OKC game got postponed due to on-going COVID-19 tracing on Monday. The Celtics traveled to Philadelphia today with close to a full roster. Tatum will be out, but Robert Williams will be making his return tomorrow in Philly. The Sixers expect to have Joel Embiid back after a knee injury, and Seth Curry will return after testing positive with COVID-19.

The NBA season has been a disaster to start the season, but it looks like we are getting a Celtics vs 76ers two game mini-series. This is something I’m sure we have all been looking forward to. The Celtics are respectively the one seed in the east (8-4) and the 76ers are the third seed (9-5), but both teams are looking to prove something in this mini-series. It’s early but neither team has played more than five games against teams above .500 (Celtics 5, Sixers 2), so this will be a great test to see where each team is at. Here are five things to watch for during these two games:

1) Celtics centers vs Joel Embiid
There’s no denying that Embiid is one of the best players in the league at this point, and he typically destroys the Celtics. Last year against the Celtics in the playoffs, Embiid did some serious damage with splits of 30pts/12.3reb/1.3ast/1.5stl/1.3blk per game. Although the Cs swept the 76ers in the playoffs last year, they are a completely different team now that Doc Rivers is the coach and have a roster that fits around the main pieces better. Embiid is in the midst of an MVP campaign this year with splits of 25/12/2.9/1.4/1.5 with career highs in FG% (54%) and 3pt% (39%). So it’s not a matter of shutting him down because that’s not doable. Can the Celtics slow down Embiid?

Slowing down Embiid and other dominant centers have been a problem for the Celtics ever since Al Horford left, but that’s why the Celtics went out and got Tristan Thompson. TT’s had an okay start to the season, but this is the matchup we’ve been looking forward to the most. His numbers could be skewed due to the double big lineup being ineffective, as his defensive rating is at 109 and his DBPM is at -1.9. He is coming off a game where he had a large role in shutting down Nikola Vucevic to 15/6 in the Magic victory (ignoring the Knicks game), so maybe he can bring that intensity to the Sixers. The Celtics do have Rob Williams coming back who can play a part in stopping Embiid, but as we saw in the preseason matchup, Embiid’s size and strength is way too much for Rob Will to handle after a long period of time. I assume the Celts will double/trap Embiid in the post whenever they can, but it is important for the Cs to cover the outside now that the Sixers have more weapons on the perimeter. Slowing down Embiid will be the biggest key to the Celtics success.

2) Brad Stevens vs Doc Rivers
The duel between Brad and Doc hasn’t quite gone in the Celtics favor. Ever since Brad Stevens seceded Doc Rivers in 2013, the Celtics record against Doc’s Clippers is (4-10). Doc has had some pretty solid Clippers teams against some of Brad’s bad Celtics teams, but even since Tatum got drafted, Doc’s Clippers still hold a 5-2 record over the Celtics. It’s a different story now that Doc coaches the Sixers and he tries to flip the rivalry.

Both coaches are very good at what they do, but have different styles. As we know, Brad is known for being more of an X’s and O’s guy and Doc is more known for the level of energy he brings to a team. I will be looking forward to Brad’s defensive game plan against this newer Sixers' lineup and how he will manage the roster with Kemba back and Tatum absent. I also wonder how Doc will exploit the Celtics' weaknesses on defense and how he gets the team to keep the defensive intensity up to force the Celtics to commit turnovers.

The only good thing that COVID-19 brought to this season is the two game series’. That makes games between the two teams more personal and gives each game more purpose. Between these two teams, the games will have a playoff type atmosphere. Unless the Celtics play like they did against the Knicks. It is almost guaranteed that both coaches will make noticeable adjustments after the second game, regardless of who wins the first game.

3) The return of Kemba (part 2)
So here’s how I’m going to look at this; Kemba’s first game back was just a feeler. He was just running around at real game speed, trying to get a grasp of what it was going to be like to get back on the court. I know the Celtics lost really bad on the day Kemba happened to return, but I see it as an overall win because Kemba felt great a couple days after his return.

With that being said, now I expect him to make a bigger impact on the team. Last week he went 3-11 from the field and 1-8 from three with 9 points and 4 assists. He was passing the ball pretty well even though players couldn’t handle his passes a few times. Physically he looked great. He looked quick at times and he had that explosiveness to him on certain occasions. I get that he is rusty and that is probably why he was missing so many shots, but a lot of those shots were open, which worries me. I think that game isn’t the best to judge Kemba on because playing bad basketball was contagious that day.

I’m way more nervous about the Sixers game. Against the Knicks, Kemba was at least getting decent looks. Against the Sixers he will find himself in a tougher spot, being covered by Danny Green and potentially Ben Simmons. He has the quickness and skill to get by them, but they have the length to take away the quality of his threes. Plus, without Tatum a lot of their focus will be on Kemba, so if he isn’t at 100% then they can easily erase him from the Celtics' game plan. Luckily, he looked like he is at 100% so he will most likely be able to create his own shots and opportunities for his teammates. I do not expect him to have another dud like he did against the Knicks.

4) Battle of the mediocre benches
A trend that Celtics fans are tired of hearing is that the Celtics bench can’t score. Well that trend continues this year as the Celtics are ranked 20th in bench scoring. The good news is that the 76ers rank 23rd in bench scoring. The problem is that the 76ers have Shake Milton who is third in the NBA in bench points (16.91 ppg). Both teams don’t really score well off the bench, which shows how good each team's best players are considering they are both top 3 teams in the Eastern Conference. How well the bench players play can be an X-factor in these two upcoming games.

The 76ers might have the best bench scorer in Milton, but the Celtics have FastPP. They also have legitimate advantages in other areas in bench stats that could give them the edge in this matchup. The Celtics bench rank better in most categories and they rank in the top ten in bench rebounds (5th), steals (4th), blocks (2nd), and FG% (6th). The Celtics may not rank that well in bench scoring, but that’s because they have Jays and Smart on the court at most times. These other ranks prove that the Cs have legitimate bench depth and without Tatum it will be important for them to keep up the good work.

5) How do the Celtics manage to get wins without Tatum?
All the complaints about Tatum’s end of the game shots seem so insignificant after watching the game against the Knicks. It made me realize how much we actually need him. The scoring he brings, the amount of attention he gets, the extra length he adds and his presence in general makes a huge impact to this Celtics team. It is to be determined whether he can play in Friday’s game, but the Celtics are for sure not going to have him on Wednesday. The Celtics need to be able to make up for everything he brings to the team. If the Celtics want to beat the Sixers without Tatum, then everyone who plays will need to play to their potential. For more about how the Celtics play without Tatum, click here.

The Celtics-Sixers rivalry continues on Wednesday and Friday. These games don’t really mean anything in reality, but to us fans it means a lot. Whoever wins these games gets to talk shit until they play again in the season. It is likely that they split the series. but I guarantee there will be shit talking regardless. I'm here for all of it.

Embiid stats
bench scoring
Thompson stats
Clippers vs Celtics