It’s official: the #3 seeded Boston Celtics will face off against the #6 seed Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2020 Playoffs. In their 21st postseason meeting in NBA history, who’s got the advantage this year?
The Case for Boston
First, the Celtics have (obviously) won more games than the Sixers. Boston is entering the playoffs with a record of 48–24 (5–3 in the bubble) while Philly went 43–30 (4–4). While this series is being played on neutral territory, winning usually matters, and the last time these teams faced off, the Celtics won by 21.
Second, Boston is the only team in the Eastern Conference with both a top-5 offense (#4 at 112.8 OffRtg) and defense (#4 at 106.5 DefRtg). As I detailed in my previous piece, this comes from the Celtics’ deadly combination of players. Their top five players each average in double digits, and three of them — Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown — each average at least 20 points per game. Tatum and Walker are 2020 All Stars while Marcus Smart, their 5th-highest scorer, is an All-Defensive player who regularly makes critical stops. Gordon Hayward, a former All Star, is averaging 50% from the field. Daniel Thies is a top-10 center in the league, per ESPN. Brad Wanamaker is the league’s most accurate free throw shooter.
Finally, they’re all healthy as they enter this match-up. The Sixers are missing one of their most critical players, All Star Ben Simmons, due to injury. This gives them an edge, especially since Simmons was the main defender on Tatum and, arguably, their best defender.
The Case for Philadelphia
As talented as the Celtics may be, the Sixers have been their Achilles heel this season. They went 3–1 against the Celtics, proving to be a match-up nightmare. Philly has regularly bullied Boston’s All Star players, Tatum and Walker, into extremely inefficient shooting. In fact, Philly has held Boston to an offensive rating of 104.0 points throughout the season, 8.8 points less than their average, while the Sixers averaged the Celtics’ defensive rating of 106.5. Winning the most recent matchup was good, but one game pales in comparison to the three they lost.
While Simmons will be absent, Philly still has the best player in the series, Joel Embiid, who has routinely dominated the paint and schooled both Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter. Ironically, losing Simmons spaces the floor for the team, since he rarely shoots outside of the paint. Tobias Harris is a 36.7% 3-point shooter on 5 attempts per game. Furkan Korkmaz shoots above 40% from deep on more than 4 attempts per game. Former Celtic Al Horford shoots 35% from deep on over 4 attempts and is a solid paint protector. With a team as big and tough as the Sixers, Boston’s got their work cut out for them on the defensive end.
And, before we forget, the Sixers took the Kawhi Leonard-led Raptors to seven games last postseason, placing them within a single missed basket away from the Conference Finals. This is not a team to snuff at by any means.
Best Guess: Boston wins, 4–2
These two teams will be exciting to watch, but I (predictably) give the series to Boston in six. However, this will not be a walk in the park — not by a long shot. The rivalry will continue, and there will be some surprises along the way.