The Philadelphia 76ers will enter their second round series against the Boston Celtics as considerable underdogs, in large part due to the lingering uncertainty around Joel Embiid’s health in advance of Monday’s Game 1.
Philadelphia has never beat Boston in the playoffs during the Embiid era, nor has Embiid ever put together a fully healthy postseason. If the Sixers’ MVP candidate does play, he will likely be fighting an uphill battle with a hefty knee brace. The Sixers will need contributions from across the roster to beat the Celtics, one of the deepest teams in the NBA and a team with recent Finals experience.
Can the Sixers win? Of course. Embiid and Harden are arguably two of the three best players in the series and Philly is no longer facing a steep coaching disadvantage in this matchup; Joe Mazzulla’s head-scratching decisions were part of what allowed the 41-41 Hawks to take Boston six games in the first round.
Here are specific player matchups that could determine the success of Doc Rivers’ team.
Key matchups for 76ers vs. Celtics in NBA playoffs
3. Tyrese Maxey vs. Derrick White
Derrick White has been a genuine standout for Boston all season, but he was especially important during Boston’s first round victory over Atlanta. For stretches early in the series, he straight-up outperformed Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, two All-Star guards. One of whom has led his team to the conference finals before. White is a tremendous defensive force, but he can also compromise opponents with his offense.
It’s not far-fetched to argue that White is Boston’s third-best player and Tyrese Maxey is the Sixers’ third-best player. Naturally, they should see plenty of each other in this matchup. One has to imagine Marcus Smart will draw the primary James Harden assignment, leaving White to chase Maxey on the perimeter.
Assuming the Sixers have Joel Embiid, the Celtics’ defensive game plan will probably mimic Brooklyn’s in round one. The MVP candidate will see a lot of bodies on every touch, which means his teammates are in advantageous positions if he can get them the ball. The Nets couldn’t recover and shut down the other facets of Philly’s offense. Maxey popped off for some big offensive nights, feasting off slashes to the rim against hopelessly rotating defenders. Can he experience the same success against Boston when faced with a potential first team All-Defense candidate in White?
On the other end, Maxey is probably the weakest link in Philadelphia’s defensive chain — at least in the starting five. The Celtics have struggled at times to generate consistent offense when the two Jays don’t have it going; can Maxey prevent White from offering that support? White is a physical slasher and quality connective playmaker who will test Maxey on both ends.