After wrapping up their eighth and final seeding game on Friday night in Orlando, Fla., the sixth seed Philadelphia 76ers will begin their playoff journey on Monday evening against the third seed Boston Celtics.
This season, the Sixers surprisingly won the season series against their Atlantic division rivals (3-1). However, that was when they had a healthy Ben Simmons.
When they take on the Celtics this time around, they will be without Simmons, who suffered a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 5. In four games against Boston, the All-star point guard averaged 18.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game.
Therefore, it will take a total team effort for the Sixers to upset a Celtics team that has three players averaging 20-plus points per game (Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown).
Not to mention, there’s Gordon Hayward, who is also capable of having a big game himself. This season, he is averaging 17.5 points per game and shooting 38.3-percent from three-point range.
The last time these two teams matched up in the playoffs, the Celtics defeated the Sixers in five games in the 2018 Eastern Conference semifinals.
With all that being said, can the Sixers get multiple dominating performances from Joel Embiid to pull the upset? Or will Boston’s offensive firepower be too much for Philadelphia?
To answer those questions and more, here are three things to watch out for in the latest installment of this rivalry:
1. Joel Embiid vs. the Celtics’ frontcourt
For the Sixers to have any chance of taking this first-round series from the Celtics, they will need Embiid to dominate in the low post.
During the seeding games, the three-time All-star showed why he is one of the league’s best big men. In the team’s first four contests at Disney World, he averaged an outstanding 30 points and 13.5 rebounds in 33.8 minutes per game.
Furthermore, he got to the free-throw line 11.3 attempts per game. His best performance in the bubble happened against the Indiana Pacers, where he had 41 points and 21 rebounds.
In that game, he asserted himself in the low post and got Pacers center Myles Turner into foul trouble early. The former first-round pick will need to carry that mentality into this series against Boston.
This season against the Celtics, Embiid is averaging 21.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in 27.6 minutes per game. He also has an offensive rating (ORtg) of 116 and a defensive rating (DRtg) of 108.
On the other end of the court, Embiid will be going up against the combination of Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter.
In the bubble, Theis is averaging 8.2 points and 5.7 rebounds in 25.3 minutes per game. Kanter, however, is averaging 8.5 points and 5.7 rebounds in 13.6 minutes per game.
It is clear that Embiid will be the best big man in the arena, but will he play like it? That’s only a question he can answer at the end of the day.
2. Who steps up off the bench?
With Al Horford going back to the starting lineup, the Sixers lost valuable bench production. However, head coach Brett Brown has found lightning in the bottle with two-guard Alec Burks.
Burks, who the Sixers acquired from the Golden State Warriors back in February, has given the team a backup point guard and an offensive spark.
The 6-foot-6 guard is averaging 20.3 points and shooting 45.5-percent from three-point range on 5.5 attempts per game (last five games). Burks’ production is something that the Sixers will need against a Celtics team that has five players averaging double figures.
Along with Burks, veteran forward Mike Scott is heating up at the right time for the Sixers. The 32-year-old forward is averaging 13.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, along with shooting 66 percent from three-point range.
After not playing in the team’s first three games, and barely playing in the fourth game against the Orlando Magic. Scott scored nine points in 15 minutes off the bench versus the Portland Trail Blazers.
In addition to his shooting, Scott can play some small-ball five, which is beneficial to the Sixers’ floor spacing on offense. Lastly, don’t forget about Furkan Korkmaz, who can provide some instant offense from three-point range.
3. Thybulle’s first playoff test
As I previously mentioned, a couple of bench players will need to step up to offset Simmons’ production. However, one player, who might be an x-factor in this series, is rookie wing Matisse Thybulle.
The 23-year-old forward will have the tough task of defending either Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, or Kemba Walker. If Thybulle has to defend Walker, the Sixers should like their chances to be competitive in this series.
On Sunday afternoon, Sixers head coach Brett Brown was asked about the possibility of the 23-year-old rookie starting. He did not dismiss the idea.
Going back to Thybulle’s defense, he is averaging 5.5 contested shots and 3.0 deflections per game in the bubble. However, when it comes to Boston, he is only averaging 1.5 deflections and 5 contested shots per game.
Nevertheless, it shall be interesting to see how Thybulle handles his first postseason because the Sixers will need him to play at a high level.