Moore: 5 Things to Know Before Betting the Celtics vs. Sixers Round 1 Playoff Series
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers against the Boston Celtics.
The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers resume their storied rivalry with their first-round playoff series starting Monday. Here are five things to know before putting your money down on the Celtics Sixers.
Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers Series Odds
|Win in 4||+500||+3200|
|Win in 5||+300||+1400|
|Win in 6||+330||+900|
|Win in 7||+480||+650|
1. Everything about your bet should be decided by what you think about Joel Embiid in this series
This is like choose your own adventure.
If you think Embiid can and will dominate, exert his maximum effort and focus on destroying the undersized Celtics in the post where they only have one capable defender, Enes Kanter, who is vulnerable in all other aspects on the floor, then you need to look hard at the Sixers against the spread and for the series.
I cannot stress enough how dominant Embiid can be if he commits. This was the first possession of their last matchup in February:
Embiid would not have deep post touch for another five minutes in that game. Hence the entire problem.
Here’s what Embiid does often instead:
The Sixers didn’t have any pick-and-roll in their offense for most of the season, and it was mediocre. So they reformatted moving Ben Simmons to power forward and using more pick-and-roll with new starter Shake Milton. This is a good idea with Simmons.
It’s a bad idea with Embiid.
He winds up with pick-and-pops and a lot of this:
Embiid is the best post scorer in the NBA. It’s not close. Nikola Jokic is awesome, but he’s not nearly as efficient. But Embiid is not great as a roll man.
He is basically the opposite of mid-to-late career Dwight Howard, who always wanted to post when he was dominant as a rolling big. Embiid scores just .951 points per possession shooting 40% (46% eFG including 3’s) on pick-and-roll and scores 1.1 points per possession in the post — that’s better than any other 2-point generated offense.
But he just doesn’t do it enough.
Instead, he opts for these short jumpers trying to pull the defense out so he can drive for dunks. But guess what? Defenders aren’t going for it. They’re fine with him shooting jumpers all day long because he’s not in the post.
The other issue is that Embiid still struggles with double teams.
Embiid isn’t top 10 in post turnover percentage (per Synergy Sports). But the problem is his 11.7% turnover percentage is a problem when he posts as often as he does. That comes out to one turnover per game just from the post. That sounds like a small number, but an extra TO per game just in those sets is a lot.
So Embiid needs to simultaneously post more and turn the ball over less. Boston will send help. He needs to make reads like this, hopefully with more spacing (why they are running Al Horford from pinch post here, which just adds a third defender to Embiid’s post-up is baffling).
That shot, right there, is absolutely pivotal. Milton needs to hit that.
The Sixers also need to run more two-man sets with Embiid and Tobias Harris. It results in stuff like this:
The matchup is still a nightmare for the C’s. They rely partially on their ability to switch 1-5, hinged on Marcus Smart’s insane strength. But he’s just no match for Embiid physically, so he goes for the steal. Spin, dunk.
Daniel Theis, Grant Williams, Robert Williams, none of them can handle Embiid. The only guy who can?
Kanter is a fringe player in the rotation because he gets absolutely eaten alive in pick-and-roll coverage and his presence clogs spacing.
But he does a good job vs. Embiid because it’s exactly the kind of game he can handle. He doesn’t have to manage space, he doesn’t have to move laterally. It’s just physicality:
And he’s got quick hands for strips, something he did vs. Steven Adams in the last year’s postseason:
But again, if Embiid just beasts up, no one can stop him. No one:
Note the flop attempt by Kanter there. He’s going to do that often, so will smart. Bettors need to be watching Embiid’s foul situation and be ready to pounce: the Sixers can’t win, or hang, without Embiid.
Per NBA.com’s admittedly wonky matchup data, Kanter held Embiid to 7-of-19 shooting (36%!) in the regular season. Kanter literally may not play in any other series, but he’s hugely valuable here.
If you think there is a better than 22% chance (implied odds at +350,) that Embiid will actually dominate this series the way he can, there’s value on the Sixers. If you don’t, Boston is the play.
2. Be ready to play overs, with a tilt towards Celtics team overs
Overs went 6-2 for the Celtics in restart play, mostly because their defense was a nightmare early on. But the Celtics also hit their team total over in six of the eight games. The offense is cooking. Meanwhile, since 2016-17, the over is 14-5 in 76ers games where Simmons doesn’t play.
The Sixers play at a slower pace without Simmons, but the games tend to be shootouts when he’s not there. Of those 19 Sixers games without Simmons over the past three seasons, their opponent’s team total over hit in 15 (78.9%). There’s also the problem of Philly’s defense.
The primary scheme with Embiid on the floor is to drop the big in pick-and-roll. This is absolutely disastrous with the shooters the Celtics bring to the table, like Jayston Tatum:
Or Jaylen Brown:
The Sixers experimented in their last bubble game with hedging. But the problem is Embiid will wind up getting caught flat-footed and pick up fouls, which the Sixers can’t afford.
The opening total for Game 1 is 220. I think that number is a little sharp, so I’ll be betting the Boston team total over 112.5 on a smaller wager, but I’m not expecting much of a slugfest between these teams with Simmons out.
3. Neither team has a bench, but the Celtics can layer their starters in waves
Boston’s bench ranks 15th in offensive rating and has the third-best defensive rating. The Sixers rank 28th in offensive rating and second in defensive rating. There’s probably reason to watch second quarter live totals because of this; teams will play starters longer in third quarters vs. first, and return them earlier in the fourth. But Boston’s wing starter-caliber players: Kemba Walker, Brown, Tatum, Gordon Hayward, Smart.
With six of those guys, you can keep at least two, if not three, on the floor at all times and still get rest. Can Embiid play 40 minutes? They can probably get by with Horford vs. the bench minutes, but it’s likely to be a little difficult from there. If I’m wrong on the totals above, it’s going to be because the bench units just throw rocks at each other for six minutes per half every game.
4. Ben Simmons’ absence is overrated
Note that this does not say “Ben Simmons is overrated.” I wrote a whole thing on why I was finally buying in on the Sixers with Simmons at power forward. But consider this: the Sixers had a 3-1 record over the Celtics this year. Simmons, however, had a net rating of just +0.3. The Sixers outscored the Celtics by 16 points per 100 possessions with Simmons on the bench in the four meetings.
That stat alone doesn’t mean much, but when you think of the Celtics, they have a scheme to counter Simmons’ struggles with shooting, and you need shooting to keep pace with the Celtics. Simmons held Tatum to 5-of-16 shooting in the regular season, but Josh Richardson held him to 2-of-7.
Simmons is empirically a better defender than any other 76ers player, but they also have Matisse Thybulle to sick on the smaller guards. The bigger issue may be Hayward vs. Tobias Harris, the Sixers’ one weak point defensively among the starters. But Philly is going to have to surrender points to one of the wings, they just can’t do it to all of them and expect to win.
Yes, Simmons’ absence matters. It just matters less in this matchup than others.
5. Be ready to go the other way.
If Embiid is dominant, this thing tilts in a hurry. But if the Celtics come out and just handle this team, the Sixers may simply bail. Their chemistry, heart, effort and fight have been questionable all season.
Brad Stevens is 32-24 ATS (57%) in the playoffs, Brett Brown is 14-9 (60%). Stevens’ playoff reputation is a little overstated, Brown’s is accurately rated as poor. This isn’t as much of a mismatch as it seems, but it’s definitely a Celtics advantage.
The Sixers have to win with blunt force. The Celtics have more paths to win but fewer counters if Embiid shows up. I am not of the mindset that if the Celtics win the first game or go 2-0 you should buy back or double down on the Sixers. This one should be apparent at the start.