WALTHAM — So the Celtics were able to overcome one physically dominant, gifted and unique franchise player and now run into two of them in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Those Celtics faithful who were in awe of 23-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo's prowess will now have the opportunity to witness the Philadelphia duo of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, two millennials who will take the reins of NBA stardom from LeBron James over the next decade and become transcendent talents.
Their only drawback right now is youth. The 24-year-old Embiid was drafted in 2014 but is in his first full season after the 7-foot center missed two years after foot surgery and part of last season with knee issues. When healthy, Embiid is the league's most talented and imposing center with a vivacious personality to match.
The 6-foot-10-inch Simmons, who missed last season with foot surgery, is a 21-year-old rookie who has quickly turned into James-lite with his ability to handle the ball brilliantly for his size, distribute, and run the offense. He has Magic Johnson-type skills and has exceeded all expectations after sitting out a full year.
The Sixers, mired in a half-decade rebuilding plan, have spent the past few years putting a formidable team around Embiid and Simmons. They signed J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. They drafted Dario Saric. They found shooter and defender Robert Covington. They acquired 3-point shooters Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova in February.
And they enter this series as the favorite because all of their talent and potential has come to fruition at playoff time. They disposed of the Miami Heat in five games, a series many prognosticators picked Miami to win because of its experience. Experience doesn't appear to be an issue for the 76ers, and the Celtics will have to devise ways to defend the biggest point guard in the NBA (Simmons) and the most gifted center (Embiid).
The Celtics are going to have to bring Embiid away from the basket defensively to reduce his rim protection. Embiid is mobile for his size and averaged 1.76 blocked shots per game during the regular season. Al Horford's perimeter shooting should bring Embiid away from the basket, while Horford will have to try to defend Embiid with his quickness.
"Embiid is special and everybody knows that," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "You're not going to be able to guard him with one guy. You're not always going to stop him making shots."
The Celtics' best chance to limit Embiid is forcing him to score from the perimeter. He made 72.8 percent of his shots inside 3 feet this season. That number dropped to 38.7 percent from 3-to-10 feet. Like many current big men, Embiid has a fascination with the 3-pointer, and while he's capable of nailing a three, he was 30.8 percent from long distance this season.
Stevens may go to burly Aron Baynes to make postups more difficult for Embiid and also keep Horford from picking up fouls. The Celtics have had success defensively against Embiid in the past. In four career games against Boston, Embiid is shooting 40.6 percent from the field and has missed 13 of 15 3-point attempts.
Simmons presents a difficult challenge because he is a pass-first point guard who can look over defenses because of his size. He can also post up opposing guards. Simmons came into the NBA as a non-shooter, and that remains the case. He attempted 11 3-pointers in 81 games and missed all 11.
But the Celtics are going to have to prevent Simmons from starting and completing fast breaks. He simply uses his size and athletic ability to gallop down the floor and either attack the rim or find Redick, Covington, Ilyasova, Belinelli or Saric for 3-point attempts. Those five players shot at least 36.9 percent from the 3-point line this season.
Philadelphia is deadly in transition, and the Celtics struggled mightily with Milwaukee's transition game until Game 7.
"They're the best team in transition; they just make you pay," Horford said. "It's a challenge going against them. All year we matched up big on [Simmons]. You can't put a guard on him. I'm sure we'll mix it up throughout the series. Ben just has that ability to distribute the ball really well. His ability to read defenses, it's just impressive for a rookie to have that kind of poise and do that."
Rookie Jayson Tatum and second-year forward Jaylen Brown, who has been listed as doubtful for Game 1 with a strained hamstring but should play in the series, are going to have to counter Philadelphia's scoring with consistent buckets of their own. Also, Marcus Smart could be critical in this series in defending Simmons.
The Celtics haven't played the 76ers in more than three months and when they did, they had Kyrie Irving to score and Daniel Theis to help defend Embiid. Irving and Theis are sidelined with injuries, so Stevens —
with a 48-hour turnaround — will have to prepare for an offensive juggernaut and defensive unit that forced the Celtics into 72 turnovers in the four regular-season games because of its athletes.
They are catching the 76ers potentially at the wrong time but Stevens will certainly has some wrinkles ready for this highly anticipated matchup.
"I watched their whole series [with Miami] so we have an idea of what teams are trying to do," he said. "They run more than they did before but still some of the foundation of what they've always run. Rightfully so. They have a lot of options. They showed that in the last series and I thought they were able to adjust with a lot of options. It's a good team and the foundation of what they do is similar to what they did three months ago."