By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
While the Celtics dropped their final “regular” season matchup to the Wizards Thursday – popping a four-game bubble winning streak – it was clear Brad Stevens & Co. were looking ahead to their first round playoff opponent: the Philadelphia 76ers. Stevens rested his top-6 rotation players in the 96-90 defeat, a needed break after seven games in 12 days.
The Philly series tips off Monday night at 6:30.
Lean Into It
When Boston clinched the 3-seed in the East earlier this week, the 76ers reacted in a fashion that seemed to welcome a matchup between the two teams. First, on Tuesday, they benched Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson against the Suns. Then, Wednesday evening against the Raptors, those four players combined to log just 81 minutes.
The result: Philly dropped both games, pushing them two back of the Heat and Pacers, who play Friday to determine the nominal fourth and fifth seeds in the East.
After winning three of four against Boston in the regular season, did the Sixers lean into the matchup?
Embiid battled injuries in the bubble and had to leave Wednesday’s game. With All-Star Ben Simmons already out, the big man will be heavily relied upon to put up numbers against the Celtics. It’s supposedly a role he relishes, and his presence as a part of Philly’s giant lineup is part of the reason some Celtics fans worried about such a matchup all year.
Embiid put up 26.5 points, 13 rebounds. 4.5 assists and two blocks in two Philly wins (sitting out the other) against Boston during the regular campaign, but posted just 11 points (1-for-11 from the field) and five rebounds in a February loss to the Green.
What You Know
If the recipe for Boston’s success is the strength of its top four players, what we saw in the bubble has to have fans feeling pretty good about their team’s chances.
Following his 2-for-18 performance in the summer opener against Milwaukee, Jayson Tatum averaged 25.3 points on 54 percent shooting (49 percent from downtown) with nearly six rebounds and four assists in 32 minutes. Prior to the shutdown, Tatum’s shooting splits had been through the roof, so to see the third-year wing pulling up with aplomb at Disney was reassuring after a four-month layoff.
Kemba Walker averaged 14.2 points on 49 percent shooting (43 percent from deep) in 25 minutes a night, and had only one true “off” game. Most importantly, he looked like the Kemba Walker we’re accustomed to seeing.
Jaylen Brown’s poor shooting (3-for-13) against Memphis torpedoed his percentages and ended a streak of 23 consecutive games scoring 17 points or more. But Brown still put up nearly 20 points a contest during his stint in the bubble, showing the aggressive confidence of someone who might draw for Best Supporting Actor consideration if the NBA held an Oscars ceremony.
Gordon Hayward’s comeback tour is complete, finishing the 2019-20 season averaging 17.5 points (on a career-best 50 percent from the field), with the second-most assists per game and best rebounding average of his ten-year career. Hayward had one explosive scoring outing (31 points against the Magic) in the bubble, but mostly did the little things, including leading the Green in boards.
While it’s tempting to compare Boston’s front four to the favored Milwaukee Bucks or defending champion Toronto Raptors, the Sixers are the first up – and the C’s will need a sterling perimeter shooting performance to beat that team.
The Long Run
After seven seasons in Boston, Stevens is ticketed to become the longest-tenured Celtics coach not named Red Auerbach after signing a contract extension this week. Per team policy, the terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Stevens currently trails just Tom Heinsohn (eight-plus seasons) and Doc Rivers (nine seasons) in tenure and is fourth all-time (behind Auerbach, Heinsohn and Rivers) in regular season wins for the Green.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. Talk hoops with him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.