Breaking down the key factors in a potential Sixers-Celtics playoff series


If the NBA season resumes and the standings stay as they are, the Sixers will play the Celtics in the playoffs for the second time in three years.

We’ll obviously preview that matchup if it ever comes to be. But, with the season suspended since March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic, we figured it couldn’t hurt to take an early look at storylines for a potential series. 

The health factor 

Ben Simmons, who’d missed the last eight games before the NBA’s suspension with a nerve impingement in his lower back, will be “good to go” if the season restarts, according to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. Kemba Walker told NBC Sports Boston on April 1 his injured left knee is “doing well,” but said it’s been challenging without anyone available to assist him with treatment and that he’s unsure about his playing status. 

Conditioning would also play a significant role; which team would be able to best transition back into game shape?

And, of course, there’s the reason basketball isn’t being played in the first place. The health and safety of everyone involved in a hypothetical postseason is clearly the highest priority.

How would Boston guard Embiid? 

Joel Embiid had one of his worst games of the season in the last Sixers-Celtics matchup, shooting 1 for 11 from the floor in a 21-point loss on Feb. 1. He was hesitant against the Celtics’ double teams, turned it over four times in the first quarter and received little help from his teammates when he did make the proper read and find the open man.

That performance was a stark contrast to his last game vs. the Celtics, a 38-point, 13-rebound, six-assist showing on Dec. 12. Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter and Boston’s mix of defensive coverages couldn’t contain Embiid, who’s by far the most efficient high-usage post player in the NBA. Though he wouldn’t have to worry about Al Horford’s defense this time around, Embiid would likely encounter a very aggressive scheme, with the Celtics aiming to minimize his opportunities near the paint. 

The Horford-Embiid question

Speaking of Horford ... at the Sixers’ last practice, Brett Brown said he planned to pair the 33-year-old more with Embiid while Simmons was out. The Sixers had been cutting a bit into the time the two big men played together — between Horford’s first outing off the bench and the game prior to Embiid’s shoulder sprain, they shared the floor for 47 minutes in four games (11.8 minutes per game). In the 33 games before that in which they’d both been on the court, they’d averaged 14.3 minutes per contest.

Brown has been steadfast about not abandoning that duo, despite it being the Sixers’ worst regular two-man pairing in terms of net rating. How often would he try to play the two together in a playoff series? 

Tatum and Brown’s growth  

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are much better players than they were in the 2018 Sixers-Celtics series, with Tatum earning his first All-Star selection this season and Brown not very far off. The two combined for 57 points in that Feb. 1 Boston blowout. 

However, the Sixers should be better equipped to handle Brown, Tatum and the Celtics’ perimeter threats than they were two years ago. Simmons is deserving of an All-Defensive Team spot and Matisse Thybulle is the league’s best rookie defender by a landslide. 

Josh Richardson was out for the Feb. 1 game with a left hamstring strain, and the Sixers felt his absence. He’d guarded well in the Sixers’ three wins this season over Boston, holding the Celtics to 13 for 39 shooting (33.3 percent) on field goals he defended. 

An untested bench 

It’s unclear exactly what Simmons’ return would mean for Shake Milton, though Brown said on March 10 he still expected Milton to have a “significant role.” 

If Horford was to remain a starter, the Sixers’ bench would be quite short on playoff experience. Mike Scott has appeared in 48 playoff games. The combination of Furkan Korkmaz, Milton, Thybulle, Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III has played in 30, and 25 of those belong to Burks and Robinson.

Brown said on Feb. 20 he wanted to have a nine-man playoff rotation. The questions of who would make the cut and how young players like Korkmaz and Thybulle would fare remains open. 

At their worst, Thybulle and Korkmaz can be one-dimensional. Thybulle is often reliant on his defensive disruption to compensate for contributing little offensively. He’s shot just 25.3 percent from three-point range since returning from his right knee injury in January. Korkmaz tends to depend on his outside shooting to make up for his weaknesses on the other end of the floor, though he’s improved defensively this season. 

Anything but normal 

Usually, playoff series are determined by factors such as who wins particular individual matchups, whether teams can make intelligent adjustments and how well players respond to pressure.

Now, it’s possible a player could sink a game-winning jumper and, instead of 20,000 fans going berserk, hear nothing besides the celebration of his teammates on the bench. For as much as the idea of sports providing some normalcy during a difficult time might be comforting, this wouldn’t be a normal basketball series for anyone involved. 

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