A look at five areas to watch leading into the Celtics-Sixers playoff opener on Monday night in Orlando:
1. How do the Celtics defend Joel Embiid? It’s going to take a team effort to get this done with four shooters surrounding the All-Star at all times on the perimeter.
“We just have to do our job; everybody has to do their job,” said Jaylen Brown. “Embiid is a one-of-a-kind type of talent that you don’t see very often. We have to do our job, our best to slow him down and [make him] have a tough night. He’s going to come out and dominate and own space and we’ve got to execute our game plan and hopefully he has an off night, an off couple of nights.”
Without Ben Simmons in the fold eating up spacing down low, the Sixers have already made it clear where their plan of attack will be for Game 1.
“We have the most dominant big man in the game, using Joel on the block and having him go to work,” Tobias Harris said Sunday. “That’s about all the intel I can give you right now.”
The Celtics will have 18 fouls to throw at Embiid in the form of Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Rob Williams over 48 minutes a night, but who takes up the lion’s share of those minutes will be the intriguing question in this group.
The Celtics will stick with Theis in the starting five despite him being four inches shorter and at least 50 pounds lighter than the big man. His 3-point shooting will allow the Celtics offense to run with maximum spacing with him on the court, but foul trouble and post defense could lead to a quick hook by Brad Stevens in this matchup. The question Stevens will need to ask when Theis is in the game is how much help he offers him from Boston’s other defenders. There will be no set gameplan on every possession, but a choice must be made between staying home on shooters or trying to take Embiid out of rhythm with double teams. Stevens spoke about the multitude of factors that will go into that choice.
“The past, the now, personnel, how other teams have guarded him, how we’ve tried to guard him, who is around him, who’s not around him, he’s outstanding,” Stevens said. “So I think you give him one look, you’re probably in trouble.”
Kanter was brought here for this matchup primarily after the trade of Aron Baynes last summer, but Boston’s defensive ceiling is limited when he’s on the court. He can body Embiid in the post and help keep him off the glass, but his other liabilities will make this a potential net negative proposition for the C’s unless he has it going with a soft touch around the basket.
The entire wildcard in this equation is Rob Williams of course after his stellar play in Orlando so far. He missed three of the four matchups with the Sixers this year due to his hip injury and his bad habits (biting on pump fakes, getting out of position by chasing blocks) are recipe for disaster against Embiid if he can’t stay disciplined. With that said, he has made great strides in those departments over the past two weeks and will get a chance to make an impact down low against Embiid or Horford.
The Celtics certainly won’t win this positional battle, but if they can avoid it being a blowout by providing some secondary scoring on Embiid on the offensive end of the floor, it bodes well for Boston’s chances.
2. Which Celtics starter gets the offensive mismatch?