1. Joel Embiid vs. Al Horford
This comes with the obvious caveat that Embiid has to be cleared to play. But also, if Embiid doesn’t play, we don’t really have a series here. The Sixers need their best player and, knowing Embiid, he will do everything in his power to play — even if he’s not operating at 100 percent.
The Celtics happen to roster maybe the single greatest one-on-one Embiid defender of all time. No player has even given Embiid more problems, more consistently in single coverage than Horford. Boston will throw doubles and triples at Embiid just like every team, but they have the rare (potential) luxury of having a player with a proven track record of slowing Embiid.
Now, here’s the rub. It’s 2023, not 2020. Embiid has gotten the better of Horford all season. Horford struggled rather noticeably on the defensive end in the Atlanta series; once considered the ultimate switch-all five, Horford is starting to show his age when asked to defend in space. In the individual matchup with Embiid, Horford just doesn’t have the quickness he once did to make up for the size disadvantage. If ever their were a high-profile moment for Embiid to fully exorcize the Horford/Celtics demons that have plagued his career, this is it. Even hurt, he has a prime opportunity to really test a beatable Celtics defense.
That said, even if the Sixers are confident in Embiid offensively, the matchup with Horford goes both ways. Boston can play five-out with Horford at center, forcing Embiid out of the paint defensively and opening up gaps in Philadelphia’s notoriously fickle perimeter defense. Embiid has struggled to guard stretch fives in the past and the Celtics will certainly look to exploit that. If the Sixers can’t solve that particular equation, then Boston’s offense might be too potent to overcome — and guarding in space won’t get easier with a knee brace.