ATLANTA — After the Celtics closed out their first-round series Thursday night, finishing off the seventh-seeded Hawks in six games, Atlanta’s All-Star point guard Trae Young expressed what is likely on the minds of many.
“The team we were playing,” Young said, “is probably now the favorites.”
The Celtics are the best remaining team in the East, thanks to Miami’s five-game upset of the top-seeded Bucks, and will now have home-court advantage throughout the remainder of the postseason. As Young pointed out, second-seeded Boston has emerged as the leading championship contender, boasting star power, depth, and playoff experience.
“They’ve been playing really well all year,” Young said. “They’ve got a mixture of veterans and a mixture of young players. They have a goal of winning a championship, and, really, that’s their main goal. Coming off their Finals run, you can tell they’ve been there before.”
But the Celtics, even with a clear path to another Finals appearance, do not want to look too far ahead.
Up next is a second-round series against Philadelphia, the conference’s No. 3 seed. Game 1 of the conference semifinals is scheduled for Monday night at TD Garden, with Game 2 set for Wednesday.
Here are three things to watch:
1. How healthy is 76ers center Joel Embiid?
The top storyline headed into this series is the health of Joel Embiid, who suffered a sprained LCL in Game 3 and did not play in Game 4 of Philadelphia’s first-round series against Brooklyn.
Embiid visited with doctors Thursday to gain clarity about his timetable to return, which has remained an uncertainty since he suffered the injury on April 20. Coach Doc Rivers elected not to get into specifics about Embiid’s availability, only saying Thursday that his chances of playing improved once the Hawks forced Game 6 and delayed the start date of the series.
“If we had played [Game 1] on Saturday, I don’t know how realistic it would have been, so that’s a good thing,” said Rivers.
In Philadelphia’s two most recent games against the Celtics — a 3-point loss and 2-point win — Embiid shined. He scored 41 and 52 points in incredibly efficient outings, getting to the free throw line and making smart passes out of double teams.
Embiid’s presence down low presents matchup questions for Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla. Should the Celtics deploy a double-big starting lineup with both Al Horford and Robert Williams? Or should they continue to go small with Derrick White as they did against Atlanta?
The decisions will crystallize when the Celtics have a better sense of Embiid’s status and the frequency in which they need to double him.
2. Will anyone else step up for the Sixers?
Embiid is a dominant force when healthy, averaging 33.1 points in 34.6 minutes during the regular season. But he will not be able to power the Sixers all on his own, especially if hampered by the knee injury.
The pressure will be on James Harden to be a more consistent scorer. The 33-year-old guard didn’t find much success inside the arc in the first round, looking ineffective at the rim while making just 7 of his 30 shots in the paint (23.3 percent). He’ll need to establish more of a rhythm against the Celtics, either finishing his layups or drawing fouls to get to the free-throw line.
Guard Tyrese Maxey, meanwhile, played an important role in Philadelphia’s sweep of Brooklyn but has struggled tremendously against the Celtics over his three-year career. In 10 games vs. Boston, Maxey is averaging just 8.2 points on 34 percent shooting, including 32.1 percent on 3-pointers. Those numbers are significantly lower than his season averages of 20.3 points on 48.1 percent shooting, including 43.4 percent on threes.
The Celtics have the defensive personnel to neutralize Harden and Maxey, with their lengthy wings and feisty guards. But the extent of Embiid’s limitations once again looms large. The closer he is to 100 percent, the more he can create opportunities for others.
3. Can Philadelphia limit the Celtics on two important statistical indicators?
The Celtics are 23-1 this season when Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown both score 30 or more points.
The Celtics are 34-2 when they convert on at least 40 percent of their 3-pointers.
Both Harden and Maxey are not strong defenders, putting the onus on forwards P.J. Tucker, Tobias Harris, and Jalen McDaniels and guard De’Anthony Melton to try and contain Tatum and Brown.
The Celtics ranked second in the league in 3-point attempts per game (42.6) during the regular season, so they should continue to space the floor with their shooting from behind the arc.