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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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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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