ORLANDO — The word that has somehow funneled over to the Philadelphia 76ers side of the NBA Bubble is there are some Celtics who believe the 76ers would be lucky to win a game in their seven-game first-round series beginning Monday at The Field House.
Now that could be just phony bulletin board material, a made-up quote to motivate a shorthanded Philadelphia team that has fallen short of expectations all season, producing a losing record on the road and a sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Brad Stevens certainly isn’t boasting about the Celtics’ chances to win this series. The 76ers beat the Celtics three times this season, but those games were with All-Star forward/guard Ben Simmons, who will miss the series after knee surgery.
But the Celtics are still wary of the 76ers team that remains. They still have MVP-caliber center Joel Embiid, effective forward Tobias Harris, staunch defender Josh Richardson and former Celtic Al Horford. So Philadelphia has the Celtics’ full attention.
And to be frank, there was really no “easy” matchup for any team in the Eastern Conference. If you are a Celtics fan, would you rather play the Brooklyn Nets, who pushed the desperate Portland Trail Blazers to the brink on Thursday night and are relentless with their shorthanded roster? Would you rather play the Orlando Magic, who are physical, play strong defense and can score?
Of course, those would be easier matchups than the 76ers but nothing is easy. If the Celtics are championship contenders as they believe, they should win this series. Philadelphia has been dabbling in chaos and strife all season, from Simmons still not learning how to shoot and therefore stifling the halfcourt offense, to Embiid playing half-speed at times, to Horford unable to find comfort and then being criticized for his lack of production.
“I gotta a lot of respect for [Stevens],” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “It’s true, we’ve had tons of experiences with them, regular season, playoffs. I think their team is very unique in that there’s firepower at several positions and the Philly-Celtics rivalry is storied. It’s historic. We’re excited and treat this series with tremendous respect but we’re certainly excited to compete against them.”
Brown may have as much to lose as anyone in this matchup. He is on the hot seat. Philadelphia management gave him all the tools to compete for a title after losing in Game 7 to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals. Embiid cried after that loss and promised to be more dominant. Simmons was supposed to learn how to be a mid-range shooter.
Horford was signed to be the perfect power forward complement to Embiid, the floor-stretching finesse big man who would make the 76ers’ offense unstoppable. It hasn’t worked out that way. Embiid’s numbers declined this season in points, rebounds, shooting percentage and blocks.
Simmons attempted one more 3-pointer this season (7) than he did the year before and returned essentially the same offensive player. Horford could not find adequate space on the floor with Embiid plugging up the middle and has been inconsistent.
Horford, however, may have a real opportunity to atone for his uneven regular season by serving as a replacement for Simmons in the starting lineup. Brown wants Horford to fill the defensive void.
“When you lose somebody like Ben Simmons and you’re looking around at where you’re going to make (production) up as it relates to the defensive side,” Brown said. “Some of it you can ask (Horford) to do. He’s obviously a different designed athlete than Ben but his intellect, his lateral quickness and his toughness can compensate for a lot. We have all seen first-hand the Celtics sort of defensive success that he had on a few of our players and you look forward to flipping the uniform and bringing it more our way and he’ll be very important, especially without Ben Simmons.”
Offensively, Simmons is effective scoring at the rim and as a distributor. And the distributing part could be a problem. The 76ers’ assist leader behind Simmons is Horford at 4 per game. The 76ers lack a true distributing backup point guard. Shake Milton is more of a scorer. Richardson plays off the ball while Raul Neto commits one turnover per two assists.
The 76ers are going to have to compensate collectively for Simmons’ absence. Because despite his lack of shooting, he brings so much to the Philadelphia offense, including the ability to push the ball and beat defenses with his length and speed. And he is one of the league’s better passers.
Milton, a second-year guard from SMU, will start in place of Simmons, and he will either be assigned to Kemba Walker or Jaylen Brown defensively. They will be a dramatically different team without Simmons, but there is faith that they can play well enough to extend this series, especially with Embiid and Harris having past success against the Celtics.
“With Ben being out, that’s a guy who contributes a whole lot for us offensively in the way that he’s able to collapse defenses,” Harris said. “I think everyone kind has to shift themselves in a different way to contribute. As a collective unit we look to all find out way to up our games to another level to help our team offensively. I think our chemistry is really good right now, an all-time high.”