Celtic bodies whir around on defence, arms make angles disappear, and everyone is where they’re supposed to be.
After a physical first-round victory against the Miami Heat, Ben Simmons and his Philadelphia 76ers will take on the second-seeded Boston Celtics from 10am (AEST) on Tuesday.
The four-game season series played out 3-1 in favour of the Celtics, and despite their injury woes, Brad Stevens’ team present a real danger to the Sixers.
Here are five points of emphasis for Philadelphia to focus on.
1. Steal home-court advantage
This does not have much to do with basketball tactics, but the 76ers’ greatest opportunity for success comes in the first game of the series. They’ve been resting, while the Celtics have just wrapped up a gruelling, seven-game match-up against the Bucks and have had very little downtime to regroup and prepare.
Furthermore, Boston should be missing sophomore Jaylen Brown, who suffered a hamstring injury in the closeout game against Milwaukee, in the first game. Brown has been a huge part of their success, averaging over 20 points per game, providing excellent defence and playing 38 minutes a night against the Bucks before going down.
Philadelphia needs to take full advantage of a fatigued and depleted Boston squad right from the start. It is extremely difficult to beat the Celtics at their home arena, but at least one of those match-ups needs to go the 76ers’ way for them to take the series.
Game 1 is where Boston will be at their most vulnerable.
2. Ball security
One of the 76ers’ greatest weaknesses this season has been their high turnover rate. In fact, their 16.5 turnovers per game ranked dead last in the league.
In particular, Ben Simmons, TJ McConnell and Robert Covington all have troubling turnover rates above 13 per cent. Joel Embiid has also had more than his share of high turnover games this year.
Boston boasts this year’s top defence, with a rating of 101.5, and executes their coverages better than just about any other team in the league. Philadelphia can’t afford to make the Celtics’ job any easier with unforced errors.
The coaching staff will surely be emphasising this and in theory, it is one of the easier problems to fix, but still expect this young team to struggle in this area.
3. Pace and ball movement to attack the defence
On a related note, Boston’s defence is going to be tough to crack once they get set in the half court. Pace, which largely depends on Simmons pushing the ball up the floor, is going to be key to generate offence.
In the previous series, the Bucks found success when they were able to get out in transition against the Celtics. Philadelphia needs to look to secure defensive rebounds and get quick outlet passes to Simmons while the rest of the team runs the floor with urgency.
Transition play is one of the 76ers’ strong suits, with the team ranking in the top ten in both transition points per 100 possessions and transition play frequency. Sticking to this formula should yield success, so keep an eye out for this unit to come out pushing hard.
While it may not always lead directly to a shot, it can often create mismatches in the offence’s favour.
When forced to deal with Boston’s formidable half-court defence, the Sixers need to emphasize movement. The Celtics like to switch a lot and are very good at it, but any defence can be broken down if both the ball and offensive players are active.
The more screens, off-ball cuts and passes there are, the more switches will occur – and therefore more chances for miscommunication or failed execution will result.
Boston might also break out a zone defence for few key minutes here and there, something that they have been successful with in the past as teams are often caught off guard by it. Philadelphia needs to be ready for the zone by first identifying it quickly and then making decisive passes, cutting off the ball and not dribbling around too much (attack the closeout or pass instead).
4. Continue to switch heavily, but be smart
Like the Celtics, the Sixers are also a strong defensive team that likes to switch everything on that side of the ball. Without Kyrie Irving factoring into this series, they do not need to be too afraid of getting stuck with a lot of unfavourable mismatches and getting beaten easily one-on-one.
Therefore, they should continue to switch to deal with the Celtics’ off-ball movement. At the same time, all Philadelphia players need to stay vigilant and execute well. Tag the roll man, don’t die on screens, rotate over to help on time, and communicate on switches.
JJ Redick and Marco Belinelli are key in offence, but are prone to falling asleep on the defensive end and giving up easy baskets.
The team needs to talk and call out constantly to keep all players on the same page, accountable and aware, as you can be sure that Stevens will be looking to attack these vulnerabilities.
5. Get your shooters into space
While Redick and Belinelli might be defensive liabilities, their offence has been and will continue to be one of the driving forces behind Philadelphia’s ability to win games.
With physical and lengthy players like Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the perimeter and Al Horford roaming the paint, it is going to be difficult for the 76ers’ gunners to find open space.
It will be up to Brett Brown and his staff to find creative ways to exploit Boston’s defence. For example, the 76ers love to use dribble handoffs for their shooters around the elbow:
However, expect Stevens to have his bigs step up high to force a quick pass after the catch while his perimeter players always go over the screen. It will then fall to Brown to draw up some wrinkles to keep the offence flowing.
It will be a fascinating chess match to see these two coaches scheme and adjust over the course of the series.
Prediction: Philadelphia in six close, physical games.