Sixers-Celtics Eastern Conference Semifinals Preview: Things to Watch, X-Factor, Prediction

Philadelphia 76ers guard Tyrese Maxey (0) drives to the basket against Boston Celtics guard Derrick White (9) at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The time that all of the Delaware Valley has been nervously anticipating for months is finally here. The Philadelphia 76ers are set to face off against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Is this the year the Sixers can exorcise their demons? They have the opportunity to make it to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since the 2000-2001 season. Standing in the way is their kryptonite in the form of the Celtics. This will be the 22nd time the two teams faced off against each other in the postseason. The Sixers have not come out on top in a series against them since 1982. The Celtics also have their number this season, winning three out of the four regular-season matchups.

This series is going to add yet another chapter to the historic rivalry between the Sixers and Celtics. Game 1 of the series is on Monday at 7:30 p.m. Here is a preview of the upcoming matchup:

Things to Watch:

Embiid’s health and effectiveness

There are a ton of unknowns surrounding Joel Embiid heading into this series. He missed Game 4 of the Sixers’ first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets with a sprained right knee. Fortunately, he was able to get some extra time to rest due to them sweeping the Nets and the Atlanta Hawks drawing their first-round series against the Celtics out to six games. However, Embiid is still going to be limited to some extent by the injury. He will likely have to wear a brace. His status for Game 1 on Monday is still up in the air. NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark reported on Friday afternoon Embiid’s status to open the series might not be known until Sunday or Monday. If Embiid misses any time, expect Paul Reed to step in as the starting center. He excelled in Game 4 against the Nets, playing a large role in helping the Sixers close out that series.

How effective Embiid is whenever he steps onto the court could make or break this series. He proved throughout this season he is capable of dominating Boston. In four games against the Celtics, he averaged 36.8 points and 11.8 rebounds while shooting 61.2% from the field. Al Horford used to be able to give Embiid nightmares, although that is not the case anymore. According to NBA tracking data, Embiid scored 40 points on 64.3% shooting in roughly 66 possessions when defended by Horford. If Embiid is able to play anywhere near that same level in this series, Boston is going to have their hands full. In that case, Boston’s best, and perhaps only, hope of slowing Embiid down offensively will rely on throwing a ton of double teams at him in a similar manner to the way the Nets did in the first round.

Boston has the tools to give Embiid and the Sixers some issues defensively on numerous fronts. The Sixers like to utilize drop coverage when defending pick-and-rolls. Boston is the sixth best pick-and-roll team in the league, with the ball handler averaging 0.96 points per play. If Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown get going from the mid-range coming around the screen, Embiid is going to have to start stepping up more to defend those shots.

The Sixers ideally would be able to drop Embiid and use him defensively as a roamer around the rim. Tyrese Maxey and James Harden are, at best, iffy perimeter defenders. Having Embiid clean things up around the basket would likely be an effective strategy, especially if Boston runs their lineup with Robert Williams III and Horford. Embiid could easily sag off of Williams, a non-shooter, and put his focus on defending around the basket. However, the Celtics have started going away from that lineup in recent weeks, instead inserting Derrick White for Williams. If Horford can consistently knock down his jumpers, that would force Embiid leave the basket and step out more to defend him. The Sixers could mix up some of their defensive assignments to combat that, switching Embiid on some of Boston’s ball screens. However, it would be asking a lot for a hobbled Embiid to attempt defending Tatum, Brown or any player on the perimeter.

Which version of Harden shows up?

Boston possesses one of the league’s top defenses, finishing fifth in the league in opponent’s points per game (111.4). Despite that, their defense still has some weaknesses the Sixers can look to exploit. The Sixers’ success at attacking those weak spots will depend a lot on which version of James Harden shows up. He had some clunkers in the first round against the Nets, and he shot just 5-of-20 on attempts from around the rim. That will need to change in order for the Sixers to have a chance against the Celtics.

If the Sixers get the confident, locked in version of Harden they had for most of the season, they should be in good shape. He has the ability to aggressively attack mismatches, punishing teams for putting weak defenders on the floor. The Sixers should also game plan to try to get Horford switched onto Harden often in this series. Horford struggled mightily defending guards on switches in the first round against the Hawks. Harden hopefully should be able to feast on that matchup.

Embiid’s knee injury heading into this series makes it all the more important the Sixers receive consistent strong play from Harden. If he gets going as a scorer, it could crack open Boston’s defense and generate a flood of open shots for everyone on the floor. If he is disengaged and not aggressive, the Sixers will be hard pressed to find a way to get past Boston. Only time will tell which version of Harden the Sixers will receive in the second round.

X-Factor: Tyrese Maxey

Maxey has grown to become one of the Sixers’ top scoring options. He averaged 20.3 points this season while shooting 48.1% from the field and 43.4% from beyond the arc. However, he has looked like a completely different player throughout his career when playing against Boston. In 10 career games against the Celtics, he is averaging just 8.2 points while shooting 34% from the field and 32.1% from 3-point range. They have a bevy of strong perimeter defenders, led by Marcus Smart and Derrick White, who have the ability to cause him problems and limit his ability to drive by them.

Getting Maxey going against the Celtics should be one of the Sixers’ main priorities in this series. Spacing the floor properly around Embiid should result in him getting some easy looks from 3-point range. He can be a lethal off-ball threat when playing alongside the rest of the starting lineup. Another way to kick start his offense would be to use screens to get him switched onto Boston’s bigs. In that matchup, he would more easily be able to use his speed to drive by his man and get to the basket.

The Sixers, even with a fully healthy Embiid, already needed strong production from the supporting cast. Embiid coming into the series banged up with a knee injury makes the supporting cast’s play even more critical. The supporting cast around Embiid showed up in a big way against the Nets. Both Maxey and Tobias Harris, as of Friday morning, were in the top-10 in half-court efficiency in the first round.

The Sixers’ offense can ratchet up to a whole new level when both Maxey and Harris are playing with confidence and efficiency. If they can continue to play like that against the Celtics, the Sixers will likely be in good shape. A quick side note about Harris: He was excellent against the Nets. He picked his spots with precision and played with confidence. Most of his damage came from the mid-post area, somewhere he might be able to find continued success at against Boston.

This series will likely turn on the ability of the Sixers’ supporting cast, specifically Maxey, to produce at a high level. At his best, Maxey can swing the momentum of games with his speed and outside shooting ability. While he has struggled against the Celtics, it might only take one game for him to break through and open the floodgates.

Series Prediction

On paper, the Celtics have the edge over the Sixers heading into this series. They have more depth, home-court advantage and Embiid is not fully healthy. However, this year feels different for the Sixers. They have an improved supporting cast from past seasons and have shown an ability to play with grit. Beating the Celtics will take a full-team effort, especially with Embiid slowed by the knee injury. In the end, Harden, Maxey and Harris will step up to push the Sixers to an Eastern Conference finals appearance.

Prediction: Sixers in seven.