The Boston Celtics need to shut down the shooting of the 76ers if they want a chance in this series
Following a tense series with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics face past, present and future rival the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the NBA Playoffs. While the Celtics struggled to put away the Bucks, the Sixers pummeled the Miami Heat, mainly thanks to their excellent three point shooting.
Like a lot of NBA offenses, the Sixers rely on shooting from their role players. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are not real threats from beyond the arc, but outside shooting opens up the spacing of the floor for Embiid to post up and for Simmons to drive to the basket. Neutralize Philadelphia’s outside shooting and teams can double-team Embiid and prevent Simmons from doing damage in the slash-and-kick game.
Philadelphia destroyed Miami to the tune of 114 ppg, largely because as a team they hit 36 percent of their threes during the series. While their two best players are basically non-factors from deep, the Sixers have a deep and versatile roster of supporting players that space the floor with their shooting.
Chief among them is J.J. Redick. The former Duke star is being paid $23 million this season to do one thing: shoot threes. Redick bagged 193 triples this season and shot 42 percent from outside. Redick isn’t just a spot shooter that parks in the corner and waits for a pass, he’s a master of freeing himself off of screens and propping open in transition. Leave him a sliver of space and his quick release and brilliant footwork will make defenses pay.
Redick led the Sixers with 20 ppg in the Miami series, and the attention he draws on the perimeter frees up shots for other players. The Celtics best option is to put a physical guard like Marcus Smart or Terry Rozier on Redick, and have them fight over screens. Like an NFL cornerback, the defender needs to by physical and bump Redick as he starts to cut off-ball, disrupting his route and the timing of the Sixer offense. The same kind of defense may be required on Marco Belinelli, a similar player although he lacks Redick’s savvy off-the-ball.
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Another issue is Dario Saric. The 6’10” Croatian was taken 12th overall in the 2014 draft, the same draft that netted the Sixers Embiid. A prototypical stretch-four, Saric hit 39 percent of his threes in the regular season and spaces the floor without sacrificing rebounding or length on defense.
Philadelphia’s dream is to roll at a super-sized lineup of Redick/Simmons/Covington/Saric/Embiid. Since the Celtics can’t compete with that size, they should counter by going small and forcing switches on defense so Saric has to guard Rozier, Brown, Tatum or even Larkin. Make Philadelphia pay for sacrificing speed for size and force them to make a change.
The last major perimeter weapon is swingman Robert Covington. Years of tanking during The Process did uncover a few diamonds in the rough for the Sixers, most notably Covington, an undrafted free agent whose evolved into a typical 3 and D player. Unlike Redick, Covington does not move without the ball extremely well and instead sits out in the corner waiting for an open look drawn by Simmons’ penetration or Embiid posting up.
Covington shot 37 percent from three this season, but he’s inconsistent from game to game. Since most of his looks are wide-open, the Celtics need their defensive rotations to be fast and deny Covington those great looks at the basket. Longer players like Marcus Morris, Al Horford and Aron Baynes need to stretch out and contest his looks from the corner, denying Covington anything easy.
Despite their injuries, the Celtics still stand a good chance of moving past the Sixers. Their league-best defense and flexible defenders could neutralize Philadelphia’s shooting, which is the key to their offensive production. A couple of cold games from three and the Celtics should be headed to the next round.