(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Bill Streicher)
The Philadelphia 76ers are finally back in action after taking care of the Miami Heat in just five games. After splitting the first two games at home, the Sixers swept the next three games, which coincided with big man Joel Embiid’s return from a facial fracture. But even when Embiid was out, the Sixers more than held their own. Ben Simmons had a brilliant series as he averaged 18 points, ten rebounds, and nine assists to lead the team. Meanwhile, veterans JJ Redick, Marco Belinelli, and Ersan Ilyasova provided some timely shooting all series long.
The Sixers face the top-seeded Boston Celtics, who are coming off a grueling seven-game series against the Milwaukee Bucks. After six hard-fought games, the Celtics produced a convincing 112-96 Game 7 win at home. Al Horford and Terry Rozier were brilliant as they each had a team-high 26 points. They also combined for 14 rebounds and 12 assists. Rookie Jayson Tatum also chipped in 20 points, six boards, and five assists in the absence of Jaylen Brown, who did not return in the second half after suffering a hamstring injury.
Three keys to the game
Freshness factor - The Sixers will obviously be the much fresher team coming into this Game 1 after close to a full week off. Meanwhile, the Celtics have only had one day off following an emotional Game 7. It remains to be seen just what the Celtics have left in the tank, especially with such a quick turnaround. But at least they will be at home, where they are a perfect 4-0 in these playoffs.
Celtics offense with Jaylen Brown out/limited - The big concern for the Celtics will be Brown’s availability. The second-year swingman is considered doubtful for Game 1, and chances are he won’t be risked by Boston. Brown is one of the most reliable scorers in what is an already limited Celtics offense without Kyrie Irving. His potential absence would make it that much harder for Boston to find points against a formidable Philly defense. It’ll take a complete team effort from the Celtics to compensate for Brown’s loss.
Joel Embiid - Despite missing a good chunk of time due to his facial injury, Embiid hardly looked like he missed a beat against the Heat. Apart from his strong offense, he was once again significantly impactful on the defensive end, where he anchored the Sixers incredibly well. With a few more days to recover and build his stamina back up, Embiid should be a lot closer to 100 percent for Game 1 in Boston. In Embiid’s last visit to Boston, he had 26 points, 16 boards, and six assists.
Matchup to watch
Ben Simmons vs Terry Rozier - Rozier obviously won’t spend much time guarding Simmons; that responsibility will likely go to Marcus Smart. Nevertheless, Rozier will have the task of helping carry this Celtics offense, which will be most likely missing Brown. Simmons has shown he’s all too comfortable taking on that sort of role. The rookie has been absolutely spectacular in his first playoff appearance, and not even a road game at the Garden should faze him.
Sixers projected starting lineup
PG - Ben Simmons | SG - JJ Redick | SF - Robert Covington | PF - Dario Saric | C - Joel Embiid
Celtics projected starting lineup
PG - Terry Rozier | SG - Marcus Smart | SF - Jayson Tatum | PF - Al Horford | C - Aron Baynes
Simmons and Embiid are the two obvious danger men for the Sixers, and even with the Celtics’ impressive defense, they should continue to get their numbers. But don’t sleep on JJ Redick. The veteran sharpshooter averaged a strong 20 points per game against the Heat, and dropped a similarly impressive line of 19 points, three rebounds, and four assists in three regular-season meetings against Boston.
As for the Celtics, Rozier will likely need to take on a bigger role in the offense, especially with Brown out. But the young point guard has proven he’s capable of stepping up, especially at home. He’s averaging a terrific line of 24.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists in four playoff home games. Big Al also deserves some strong consideration, especially with what he did against the Sixers during the regular season (16.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.5 steals in four meetings).
The Celtics shouldn’t be completely counted out even without Brown. They still have home-court advantage, and there’s also a chance the Sixers come out a bit sluggish following a long layoff. But it’s hard to bet against the Sixers with the way they’ve been playing. They’re a ridiculous 20-1 in their last 21 games. As good as the Celtics are, their chances of beating a healthy Sixers team with Embiid while themselves being without one of their best players seems unlikely. Take the Sixers to cover the 3.0-point head start they are giving up in Game 1.
Philly draw first blood in the series as they take Game 1, 105-100.
This game will be broadcast on TNT. Tip-off is at 8:00 pm Eastern.