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NBA Daily: 76ers-Celtics Playoff Preview

With the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers set to face off once again in the NBA playoffs, there are many storylines and match-ups worth discussing. Quinn Davis explores the details and outlines some battles to watch in what should be an entertaining first-round series.

Quinn Davis

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After five weeks filled with food critique, vlogs, basketball games, and zero (!!) Covid-19 positives, the NBA playoffs are about to begin. Seven out of eight series are locked in, with only the Lakers awaiting the winner of the Portland Trailblazers and Memphis Grizzlies play-in game(s).

While all of the series will have their share of storylines, perhaps the most intriguing will come from the middle of the Eastern Conference bracket. The Philadelphia 76ers will meet the longtime rival Boston Celtics as the 3-6 matchup.

Without further ado, let’s jump into a breakdown of the series based on some arbitrarily created categories.

Projected Starters

Boston: Kemba Walker – Jaylen Brown – Jayson Tatum – Gordon Hayward – Daniel Theis

Philadelphia: Shake Milton – Josh Richardson – Tobias Harris – Al Horford – Joel Embiid

The injury to Ben Simmons certainly throws a wrench into what the Sixers can do defensively against Boston. Simmons’ defense was brilliant this season and likely will earn him first-team All-defense honors. He shadowed Tatum in each of their four regular-season games, holding him to point totals of 21, 15, 15 and 25 on a combined 24 for 72 (33 percent) shooting.

Without Simmons, the Sixers will have to get creative to match-up with the Celtic’s multiple scorers. Richardson is their best guard defender, so he should get most of the Walker duties. Milton, whose defense has been less than stellar, would be left to guard the bulkier Brown. That means Harris, who’s an improved but slow-footed defender, would get the honor of hounding the 22-year-old All-Star.

Horford will guard Hayward while Embiid will patrol the middle against Theis, rounding out the match-ups of the starting five.

Milton on Brown is an apparent mismatch, and it will be interesting to see how often the Celtics let him go to work in the post. Tatum shouldn’t be too fretted at the sight of Harris either, and Hayward may try to take the slower Horford off the dribble.

On the other side, the Celtics can match-up more conventionally. Walker will guard the opposing point guard Milton while Brown will guard Richardson. Tatum will guard Harris across from him, leaving Hayward tasked with guarding the bigger Horford. Embiid and Theis will stay matched up in the middle.

The only mismatch there is Horford against the smaller Hayward, though the Sixers may be wary of resorting to Horford post-ups as a primary source of offense. The Celtics have a clear advantage from the opening tip.

Benches

Philadelphia: Alec Burks – Matisse Thybulle – Furkan Korkmaz – Glenn Robinson III – Mike Scott

Boston: Marcus Smart – Brad Wanamaker – Enes Kanter – Semi Ojeleye – Grant Williams

Coaches are fickle in the post-season, so some of those names may not see the court, but the first few on there are likely to play significant roles in how this series turns out.

Burks has been a microwave for the Sixers in the bubble. He excels at pulling-up from deep and the midrange off the dribble, a skill that the team sorely lacks. Unfortunately for him, he may see a lot of Smart when he comes in. Smart’s stellar defense could mitigate the bench-scoring that Burks would bring.

Thybulle could be an X-Factor reserve for the Sixers. Head coach Brett Brown acknowledged as much in his post-game presser Friday night, saying about the rookie, “He is going to be huge, as a defensive requirement … I cannot understate that.”

With the previously outlined defensive match-ups leaving room for concern, Thybulle will see a hefty role in this series. He will see time guarding Walker as well as Tatum. The key for Thybulle will be to stay disciplined and defend without fouling. If he can do that and knock down some threes when open, he could find himself in the crunch-time lineup.

After Smart, the Celtics bench can look a little thin. Kanter will likely be used as the back-up center as he provides more resistance to an Embiid post-up, but he can fall flat guarding pick-and-rolls. Ojeleye is a defensive stopper that can defend the likes of Harris, but his offense will come and go.

Both teams may feature short rotations as this series goes along, but the edge here slightly belongs to the Celtics on the back of Smart’s proven productivity.

Coaching

Philadelphia: Brett Brown

Boston: Brad Stevens

Stevens and Brown both began their tenures with the 2013-14 season. They had met once before in the playoffs when the Celtics dispatched the Sixers in five games back in 2018.

Stevens is a top-tier coach, while Brown has dealt with rumors of dismissal since those playoffs. While Stevens is the better coach, Brown did hold his own against Nick Nurse last season in the series against the Toronto Raptors.

In this series, the coaching decisions made from game to game will be put under a microscope by each of these team’s large local media base. If things go poorly on Brown’s end, the scrutiny could lead to his dismissal.

The most crucial decisions Brown will have to make will be on the defensive end. Due to the mismatches across the board, the Sixers will have to jiggle with their defensive schemes.

The Sixers usually play drop defense when defending pick-and-rolls. The scheme involves the defender guarding the ball-handler fighting over the screen and chasing the ball-handler from behind, while the big man guarding the screener dops into the paint to protect from a layup or a lob. The goal here is to goad the ball-handler into settling for a mid-range jump shot while contesting it from behind.

This scheme works when the guard defenders are active and engaged, as it takes a certain energy level to fight over a screen and get back into the play to prevent an open floater. Simmons, Richardson and Thybulle have been great this season at executing this.

Without Simmons, though, there could be holes. Harris does not have the footwork and recovery speed to get around a screen and contest. Nor does Milton, who tends to get taken out of plays when picked. If the Celtics start to feast with floaters and open jumpers, Brown will need to adjust.

He could switch to a trap, where the man guarding the screener rushes out to double team the ball handler before recovering back to the rollover. The adjustment would force the Celtics’ ball-handlers to make crisp passes out of those plays to take advantage of a 4-on-3. Brown could also opt for switching, but this would leave players like Embiid and Horford to guard wings one-on-one, and it could also lead to the Celtics seeking out Milton or Korkmaz.

Stevens will have his own decisions to make on defense. The Sixers run post-ups more than any team in the league, and by a significant margin. Embiid carries those numbers, but Horford and Harris like to back down smaller players when given a chance.

How often the Celtics send a double for these post-ups, and how well the Sixers bigs handle them, will be a pivotal battle to watch.

Embiid has improved his passing out of double teams in the bubble, but expect the Celtics to test him further in that regard. Stevens should be sending help from every direction to show Embiid’s different looks.

It may be wise to guard Horford Straight up, as his passing is a strength and he won’t do as much damage out of repeated post-ups. Harris, meanwhile, is a weak passer, but the Celtics have the players to guard him one-on-one, so a double team may only come in case of an emergency.

Both coaches will have tough decisions regarding their rotation, which could be shortened to as few as eight players if the series goes the distance.

Statistics to Watch

In the four games these two teams played this season, two statistics jumped out: rebounding and free throw rate.

In the three games the Sixers won, they posted offensive rebounding rates of 32 percent, 33 percent and 31 percent. Those rates were about ten points higher than the Celtics in those games, per CleaningtheGlass. In the game that Boston won this season, the offensive rebounding rates were very similar, about 27 percent for each.

Rebounding will be crucial for this series as the Sixers try to keep the pace. Without Simmons, this will require Embiid going into overdrive down low. He is capable of this in short bursts, but it is unclear if he can sustain that kind of effort for heavy minutes.

The Sixers won the free throw battle in their three wins as well, and this will be another key as the team tries to advance to round two. In the game won by the Celtics, they paraded to the line, putting up a free throw rate of 36.5 percent.

If the Sixers defend without fouling and get to the line often, they could give themselves a chance to beat this Boston team. If the Celtics match the Sixers in the paint, it could be a short series.

Chippiness Potential

Every good playoff series comes with a little animosity. For this series to get feisty, it will be on the backs of two players: Marcus Smart and Joel Embiid.

Those two have had a history of getting into fracases in the past, and the playoff intensity is excellent tinder for potential extracurriculars. Outside of the two usual suspects, this series may be rather tame.

Harris, Horford and Milton are generally mild-mannered. Brown, Tatum, and Walker take the high road as well. All it takes is one hard foul to spark disdain, but it is unlikely we see any all-out brawls.

Final Prediction

While the Sixers have potentially the best player in the series in Embiid, the rest of the roster without Simmons is going to have trouble handling the Celtics scorers. Barring a dominant performance from the center, expect the Celtics to take care of business in round one—Celtics in five.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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NBA Daily: What We Forgot

With the NBA season now a month old, Matt John looks into no what we have learned, but we had previously forgotten.

Matt John

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With every new NBA season, we tend to forget a few things here and there; players or teams that go through a down year are often, warranted or not, cast aside for the next best thing, only to resurface in the NBA’s collective conscience later on.

Like last season, for example, Dwight Howard was regarded as a nothing-addition for the Los Angeles Lakers, a gamble that they may have been better off not taking. However, Howard played an integral role in the Lakers’ run to the NBA title and reminded everyone that, when he plays without distractions, he’s one of the league’s fiercest around the basket.

But that’s just one example. So, who or what has been re-discovered this season? Let’s take a look.

Stephen Curry: Still Phenomenal

Nobody’s forgotten that entirely. It’s just been a while since people have seen Curry at the peak of his powers.

Sure, it was easy to be skeptical of what he was capable of coming into this season. But, with Kevin Durant gone, Curry had free reign to score and shoot as much as he desired. And, with that freedom, Curry’s put up his best numbers since 2016, his second MVP season. In 15 games, Curry’s averaged 28.2 points 5.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists and shot 45 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 93 percent from the line. He’s reminded everyone why he’s one of the games best and that he can accomplish anything or score on anyone on any given night.

Of course, the absence of Durant, as well as the loss of Klay Thompson and others, has led to another atypical season for the Warriors. Their 8-7 has them tied for seventh in the Western Conference and, while they have certainly improved on how they looked to start the season, they have a long way to go before they’re back in title contention.

The Warriors may never again reach the heights they once knew, either before or with Durant. But, until Father Time dictates otherwise, Curry should long remain a nightmare for the opposition.

Tom Thibodeau Can Get It Done

What can you say about the New York Knicks? Unironically, a lot.

Not only have they shown themselves to no longer be the butt of the NBA’s jokes, but, compared to the last decade-plus of Knicks’ basketball, the 2020-21 season might be their brightest yet.

Julius Randle’s transition into more of a point forward-type has generated a career-year and All-Star buzz. RJ Barrett has continued to improve rapidly, while rookie Immanuel Quickley has “quickley” become a fan favorite. Most impressive of all, however, is that New York has allowed the fewest points per game (102.7) and the fourth-fewest points per 100 possessions (106.8) in the NBA.

In other words, they finally look like a competent basketball team. But what’s changed? Two words: Tom Thibodeau.

The players have bought in to Thibodeau’s scheme and, clearly, it’s had a positive effect. Of course, the disaster that was his Minnesota Timberwolves tenure made us forget just what a proven head coach Thibodeau could be, but he’s put it all together in the past and, in New York, he would seem to be doing so once again.

Of course, there is plenty left to do. The Knicks’ spacing is a joke — and a bad one at that. In fact, their entire offense could stand to see some of that energy they bring on defense; the Knicks are dead last in the NBA at 101.3 points per game.

Still, at 8-8, New York is no longer a doormat and, given the last few seasons, that’s probably the best they could’ve hoped for. Rome wasn’t built in a day and the Knicks won’t be either, but the franchise looks like they may have finally turned a corner toward relevance.

Maturity Issues Loom Large

Like the Knicks, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been another NBA-darling this season. And again, like New York, their players have bought in; head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has everyone playing with energy on defense and, while their offense hasn’t quite reached the same level, they’re competing to the best of their ability.

Of course, the progress of Kevin Porter Jr. could have been the cherry on top of it all. But that ship has sailed.

After an outburst directed toward general manager Koby Altman, Cleveland has since moved on from the young forward. Of course, the Cavaliers knew Porter came with baggage when they selected him with the last pick of the first round in the 2019 NBA Draft, but his potential was salivating and Cleveland had hoped they could help him grow — not only as an NBA player, but as a person. There have been success stories in the past, troubled players that have come in and shut out the noise and become both respectable characters and NBA players. DeAndre Jordan, a former lottery talent, dropped in his own draft due to similar concerns, but overcame those issues and has since gone on to play a long career.

Unfortunately, it just hadn’t gone that way with Porter and the Cavaliers, as the noise became too much to bear for a team with a long road back to relevancy. It’s reminded everyone just how hard it can be, both as a player and as their team, to deal with those issues and, regardless of the talent or potential, the headache sometimes just isn’t worth the risk.

Luckily for Porter, it’s not too late; a fresh start with the Houston Rockets should do him wonders. And, hopefully, the Rockets can help him overcome that baggage, his maturity issues and whatever else he may be dealing with.

But even if they don’t or can’t, Porter must wake up and seize his opportunity while he still can; if he sees another falling out in Houston, there’s no telling if he’ll ever get another chance elsewhere.

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