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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.

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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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Grizzlies trade Jonas Valanciunas to Pelicans for Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams

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According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez, the New Orleans Pelicans are shipping guard Eric Bledsoe, center Steven Adams, the Nos. 10 and 40 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft, and two future first-round picks to the Memphis Grizzlies for center Jonas Valanciunas and the Nos. 17 and 51 picks of this week’s upcoming draft. So, the Pelicans are giving up the Lakers’ 2022 first-round pick. Valanciunas, the 29-year-old veteran center, averaged 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 62 games played throughout the 2020-21 season. He also shot 59 percent from the field. The seven-foot Lithuanian also ranks fourth overall in true shooting percentage (.616) among active players. On July 11, 2019, Valanciunas signed a three-year, $45 million contract with the Grizzlies. He is set to earn $4 million next season.

Additionally, in 71 games played last season, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The six-foot-one guard also shot 42.1 percent from the field in the 2020-21 season. On November 23, 2020, as part of a four-team trade, Bledsoe and Adams were traded to the Pelicans from the Oklahoma City Thunder, along with two future first-round picks and the right to swap two additional first-round picks. Last season, in 71 games played, Bledsoe averaged 12.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. His field goal percentage was 42.1 percent as well. The 11-year veteran is set to earn $18,125,000 in the 2021-22 season. Before he was traded to New Orleans, on March 4, 2019, the guard signed a four-year, $70 million extension. He earned his first All-Defensive second-team selection in the 2019-20 season.

Moreover, in 58 games played last season, Adams averaged 7.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. The six-foot-eleven center ranks fifth among active players for effective field goal shooting percentage (.591). The eight-year veteran also ranks third in offensive rebounding percentage, with an active statistic of 14 percent. On November 23, 2020, the same day Adams was traded to the Pelicans, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension. For next season, he is projected to earn $17,073,171. To add to this trade news, the Grizzlies and Pelicans are swapping second-round picks in this year’s draft, too. Referencing NBA.com’s “Consensus Mock Draft” article, with the No. 10 pick of the draft, the Pelicans were originally expected to draft either Josh Giddey or Davion Mitchell at this number. However, plans have now changed.

From ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the trade will not be finalized until August 6th, and this is because of the annual salaries of these said players. Free agency will begin on August 2, 6:00 p.m. (EST). Furthermore, per Spotrac’s 2021-22 NBA salary cap table, next season’s luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. The team’s current available luxury tax space is $22,555,195. The Pelicans and Grizzlies have a salary cap maximum of $112,414,000. Brandon Ingram, Bledsoe, and Adams had a combined cap percentage of 39.2 percent. Considering that Bledsoe and Adams are traded away, this will clear up $35,198,171 of dead cap space.

Yesterday, CBS Sports reported the news pertaining to Lonzo Ball’s desire to remain in New Orleans. With extra cap space, the team is expected to re-sign the 23-year-old guard. Likewise, for the Grizzlies, the teams has a luxury tax space of $37,019,952. Their current cap space is $8,321,229. As stated before, the transactions have not yet been finalized. The Grizzlies’ outgoing cap is now $14 million, but from the contracts of Adams and Bledsoe, they are bringing in $35,198,171.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Jazz considering trade offers for Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft

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Per one interesting announcement from Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer, the Utah Jazz are open to trading forward Bojan Bogdanovic, forward-guard Joe Ingles, small forward Royce O’Neale, and the No. 30 pick of the 2021 NBA Draft. Fischer stated, “The Utah Jazz are known to be one of the few teams actually searching to move playoff-tested talent. Retaining Mike Conley is an offseason priority, sources said, and the Jazz have held numerous discussions with teams around the league about offloading salary to create for Conley in free agency.” Point guard Mike Conley is set to become a free agent this offseason. Though, general manager Justin Zanik will aim to re-sign the 33-year-old guard in the coming weeks. Conley earned $34.5 million in the 2020-21 season.

“League personnel most often mention Joe Ingles as the Jazz wing to watch, and Bojan Bogdanovic and Royce O’Neale are also considered available for trade as Utah narrows its focus towards building a contender around Donovan Mitchel. The Jazz are also open to discuss trading their No. 30 pick, sources said.” In the 2020-21 season, in 72 games played, Bogdanovic averaged 17 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. On May 1, 2021, in the team’s 106-102 victory over the Toronto Raptors, the six-foot-seven Croatian scored a season-high 34 points, shooting 12-for-22, and he finished his performance with four rebounds and four assists as well. On July 7, 2019, he signed a four-year, $73 million contract with the Jazz.

In 67 games played last season, Ingles averaged 12.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game. The six-foot-eight forward is set to earn $14 million in the 2021-22 season. Plus, among the mentioned players, Royce O’Neale has contributed the least. In 71 games played last season, he averaged seven points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. On January 19, 2020, the forward signed a four-year, $36 million extension with the team. He will earn $8.6 million next season. According to The Athletic, in the team’s seventh workout for draft prospects, they viewed Quentin Grimes, David Duke, Matt Mitchell, and a few other players. In the first round, if the team chooses not to draft any of the players they are holding workouts for, the organization will trade the No. 30 pick.

Just for a reminder, retrieved from Spotrac, the 2021-22 NBA luxury tax threshold is $136,606,000. Utah’s active roster cap is $133,284,695, the maximum cap is $112,414,000, and the current cap space is $72,990,215. Furthermore, center Rudy Gobert currently has the highest guaranteed contract on the team. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. Gobert is set to earn $35.3 million in the coming season, whereas Donovan Mitchell will earn $28.1 million. Gobert and Mitchell combined consume 47.6 percent of the team’s salary cap. For the upcoming 2021-22 season, the Jazz have a guaranteed total of $129,719,453. Based on the team’s future outlook, the Jazz will have to make a trade or two in order to retain their star players. This should go without saying.

NBA Analysis Network reported a few days ago that a potential Jazz-Knicks trade target is Bojan Bogdanovic. Greg Patuto proposed the Knicks receiving Bogdanovic, while the Jazz would receive Kevin Knox II, and the Nos. 19 and No. 32 picks of the 2021 NBA Draft. Now, this could still happen at some point during this draft week, but then again, sports bettors and fans alike understand that these news reports could be just rumors. The most intelligent, unforthcoming general managers know not to leave bread crumb trails for the media, especially leading into the offseason. They will do everything necessary to protect their foolproof plans.

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Raptors, Pacers, Timberwolves, Kings, and Cavaliers among teams showing interest in Ben Simmons

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According to Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, five teams have shown interest in pursuing Ben Simmons from the Philadelphia 76ers. Fischer reported, “Cleveland, Indiana, Minnesota, Sacramento, and Toronto all showed interest in acquiring the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year.” Furthermore, the teams are wanting Simmons to change position from point guard to forward. “Multiple executives from those teams, when contacted by Bleacher Report, mentioned their excitement at incorporating Simmons as a play-making forward—not at the point guard position he’s played in Philadelphia.” The six-foot-eleven guard averaged 14.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 6.9 assists in the 2020-21 NBA season. This might sound fine for a young rookie, but as a five-year player, these aforementioned statistics were career lows.

However, the 25-year-old also earned his third NBA All-Star selection and second All-Defensive first-team selection last season. After a less than mediocre performance in his third postseason of his NBA career, the majority of 76ers’ fans would agree that it’s now time for Simmons to have a change in scenery. With a regular season record of 49-23 (.681), the No. 1 ranked 76ers in the Eastern Conference entered the conference semifinals as favorites over the Atlanta Hawks. Leading into this series, some NBA analysts were predicting Philadelphia to prevail four games to two. The 2016 first overall pick was expected to limit Trae Young in scoring and rally his team from point deficits, but none of this ever manifested.

Pertaining to postseason averages, Simmons had a playoff series-low of 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in the conference semifinals against the Hawks. This lackluster showing proved to be a more significant downfall for the superstar, considering Simmons had only five points, eight rebounds, and 13 assists in Game 7 versus the Hawks. In the 2019-20 season, he averaged 2.1 steals per game, leading all other players in the league. Moreover, Simmons currently ranks sixth in the NBA for active player triple-doubles (32). With a total of 32 career triple-doubles, he ranks 13th on the all-time list, tied with Clippers’ guard Rajon Rondo.

On July 16, 2019, Simmons signed a five-year, $169.65 million contract extension with the 76ers. He is set to earn $30.5 million in the 2021-22 season. Among these teams interested in Simmons, Cavs’ Kevin Love has the fourth largest contract guarantee of $91.4 million. Love is due to earn $31.3 million next season, and the 13-year veteran’s contract consumes 26 percent of the team’s salary cap. He could be traded this offseason. Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns has a contract guarantee of $130.8 million. The 25-year-old Wolves center will earn $31.6 million in the upcoming season.

Plus, Kings’ 2017 first-round pick De’Aaron Fox has a guaranteed contract of $171.1 million. Fox will earn $28.1 million next season. To add to that, Raptors’ Pascal Siakim has a contract guarantee of $131.4 million. Not to mention, reported by Yahoo Sports via trade rumors yesterday, the Golden State Warriors are a potential trade partner for Toronto. The Warriors could make a move on Siakim, clearing up space on the Raptors for Simmons. Per Spotrac, the 2021-22 season cap maximum is $112,414,000. In the coming weeks, one of these said five teams might make a substantial trade offer to the 76ers’ organization that they cannot refuse.

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