Four Keys To A Sixers' Upset Of The Celtics

After taking a circuitous path, the NBA Playoffs are finally here. There are plenty of intriguing matchups in the first round, like bubble-breakout star T.J. Warren and the Indiana Pacers against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, or James Harden and Russell Westbrook facing their former team in the Oklahoma City Thunder. But here, we’ll focus on the next chapter of one of the league’s oldest and fiercest rivalries: the Philadephia 76ers vs. the Boston Celtics. More specifically, we’ll look at what the underachieving Sixers can do to pull the upset over their rivals from New England.

On paper, things don’t look good for the Sixers. They enter the matchup as the sixth seed and Boston holds the advantage in most statistical categories. Likewise, the eye test favors the Celtics. The Sixers have been wildly inconsistent as they’ve failed to translate the talent they have on paper into the expected results on the court. The fact that the Sixers will be without star small forward Ben Simmons certainly doesn’t help. So, the favored Celtics should make easy work of the Sixers, right? Not so fast.

First, we need to remember that the Sixers got the better of things between the teams in the regular season, going 3-1 against the Celtics. Furthermore, despite the inconsistency and some ugly losses, the Sixers have also looked like legitimate title contenders at times through the 2019-20 season. If things start to click for them, they will be a team that no one wants to see. With that in mind, here are four things the Sixers need to do to pull the upset.

Dominate the glass

Rebounding is an area where these two teams posted fairly similar numbers in 2019-20, with Boston ranking eighth and the Sixers not far off at 10th. It’s also an area that Philadelphia absolutely dominated in its three wins over the Celtics in the regular season.

In those wins, the Sixers were +21, +12, and +10 on the glass. During the season series, the Sixers averaged over five more rebounds than their season average while the Celtics saw their rebounding numbers drop 7.5 below their season average.

As a result, Philadelphia was able to limit Boston’s field goal attempts and hold the Celtics to 104 points per game, well below their season average of 114. The Sixers have proven they can dominate the Celtics on the glass, and if they can continue that success, it would go a long way towards mitigating some of Boston’s other advantages.

Consistent defensive effort

Here, we get at the crux of Philadelphia’s issues this season. While many questioned the offensive possibilities of the Sixers’ unorthodox roster makeup, it was assumed that the team would be nothing short of a defensive juggernaut. That didn’t exactly play out.

The Sixers posted a defensive rating of 109.2, good enough for eighth-best in the league. That’s perfectly respectable but falls well short of what was expected of them. More concerning, though, was the inconsistency.

There were times where the Sixers looked every bit the defensive force they were expected to be. However, these stretches were usually limited to a quarter or a half instead of over multiple games or weeks. There were far too many instances where the Sixers looked outright disinterested on the defensive end or where it appeared that some of the growing pains on offense affected the defensive effort. Not only is that unacceptable for a team with the expectations that the Sixers have, it could also be downright deadly in the playoffs, especially against a team like the Celtics that has a plethora of dangerous offensive options.

For the Sixers to win this series, the team that completely shut down teams for quarters will have to not only show up but show up consistently for entire games, not just when the team is interested in playing defense or when it is desperate for stops.

The three-point line

It wouldn’t be a discussion about the current NBA if there was no talk of the three-point line, right? In this series, the beyond-the-arc discussion goes deeper than the general love affair with the three and the increase in long-range shots.

At a time when much of the league has adopted a defensive strategy in which teams sell out to protect the paint, the Sixers' system prioritizes running opponents off the 3-pt line and contesting long-range shots. Philadelphia allowed the fewest opponent three-point attempts in the league but ranked middle-of-the-pack in opponent’s 3-pt percentage.

One area where this strategy is most evident is in Philadelphia’s pick and roll/pick and pop coverage. Now, we could devote an entire piece to this single aspect of the game, but here we will simply note that it tends to create one of two situations for Sixer big men: they are either pulled out away from the basket or are left isolated in a difficult matchup. With Joel Embiid anchoring the defense, it’s fair to question the soundness of this approach, but that, too, is an article all its own. One final note is the fact that Boston runs a good amount of pick and roll (21.8% of the time per Synergy Sports), so this is an area that is ripe for a chess match between Brad Stevens and Brett Brown, and one that could have an outsized impact on the outcome of the series.

Both teams shot around the 36% mark from deep this season, but Boston ranked second in the league in three-point defense while the Sixers were 16th. There will be a lot to pay attention to around the arc in this series. If one team can gain the advantage, it will go a long way towards a series win.


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Contain Jaylen Brown

With all the firepower on the Celtics, it may seem a bit odd to single out Brown here. Emerging star Jayson Tatum leads the way for Boston with 23.4 PPG while Kemba Walker is exactly the kind of electric guard that has given the Sixers trouble defensively. But when looking at the four regular-season matchups between these teams, it’s Brown that stands out.

In the Celtics’ lone win over the Sixers, Brown was fantastic with 32 points on 57% shooting. He was a +29 in that game and it was the only contest of the four between the teams in which Boston shot better from the field than Philadelphia.

Compare that to Brown’s scoring in each of Boston’s three losses: eight points, eight points and six points. In the three games combined Brown averaged just 7.3 points while shooting 30% from the field. Across those three games, he was a -36. Sure, other Celtics struggled in those games: Tatum averaged seven under his season average, and Walker and Gordon Hayward each posted a -34. But it was Brown who had the most drastic difference in performance. Yes, it’s a small sample size. But the relative consistency of Boston’s other heavy hitters makes the disparity in Brown’s numbers hard to ignore.

If the Sixers can replicate what they did to Brown during those three regular-season wins it could be a key building block in constructing the upset.

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