This Boston Celtics – Philadelphia 76ers series has something for everyone: superstar-level talent; an injury-depleted roster that won’t quit; a tactical battle on the sidelines; and so many narratives that writers have to choose between revisiting the history between the franchises or gazing into their crystal balls at the two squads that could potentially define the Eastern Conference for the next five years. But most of that stuff is window dressing. The most important aspect of the series will be the matchup of Joel Embiid and Al Horford.
That’s not to detract from the talent and importance of the other players on the floor. Ben Simmons will rebound from a subpar Game 1 and show us why he’s the closest thing to a LeBron James successor we’ve ever seen. Jayson Tatum will continue to marinate in the slow-cooker as the “third wheel” in the Rookie of the Year debate who could very well end up being the best player of the bunch. I guess Terry Rozier could actually continue to play like this and make us all (myself included) cringe at those jokes we made at Danny Ainge’s expense.
But Joel Embiid and Al Horford are not merely the best players on their rosters; they are the stylistic anchors that dictate the identity of their teams. In Game 1, we didn’t see them go head-to-head that frequently, but those minutes will be the bellwether for this series.
Neither team wants to spend too much time in this matchup on the defensive end if they can help it. For Horford, it’s too physically demanding (and puts him at risk of foul trouble) to guard Embiid in the post and on the glass for long stretches of the game. Conversely, the Sixers don’t want one of the league’s best rim protectors chasing Horford around the 3-point line and leaving the paint vulnerable.
When they weren’t guarding each other in Game 1 (i.e. most of the game), Horford and Embiid abused their defenders and showcased their diverse offensive repertoires. Embiid didn’t seem fazed by the bulky Aron Baynes, setting him up early with the jumper and then taking him down to the low post in the second half:
Similarly, Horford thoroughly outclassed every non-Embiid matchup with strength, agility and skill:
When games get tight, however, Boston would presumably prefer to downsize and the outcome will be decided by who wins the Embiid-Horford matchup (or whether Embiid dominates it to the point that Brad Stevens shies away from it).
Horford Defending Embiid
The Celtics don’t want to double-team Embiid in the post (Brad Stevens said as much in his in-game interview). One of Boston’s core defensive tenets is to take away the 3-point line; sending help at Embiid post-ups violates that principle. But it’s difficult enough for the burly Aron Baynes to defend Embiid 1-on-1. Will the Celtics be able to stick to their beliefs if Embiid is scoring in the post (giving the Sixers defense a chance to set up), drawing fouls and wreaking havoc on the glass?
Horford didn’t face too many Embiid post-ups, but on one play he stole the leverage and forced Embiid into a tough fadeaway:
The Sixers expect those encounters to look more like this:
Something else to monitor as Embiid post-ups project to be a major aspect of this series: can Philly include enough movement and cutting off those post-ups? There is some value to letting everyone stand still to make the reads easier for Embiid, but a team like the Celtics is too smart defensively and will be able to help and recover well enough if the Sixers are standing around.
Embiid Defending Horford
This is the more interesting side of the coin to me. Embiid will likely finish as a top-3 Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but the one drawback to his archetype is a matchup with someone fitting the mold of Al Horford.
Horford doesn’t need to lock down Embiid 1-on-1; he just needs to do enough on defense so the power of Horford at the 5 can unlock the Celtics offense. Horford’s shooting draws Embiid out of his comfort zone (the paint) and tests his mobility on the perimeter. Embiid is insanely agile for a man of his size, but he needs to be precise if he’s going to provide any kind of help in the paint while keeping Horford from shooting pick-and-pop 3s.
In Game 1, Horford got too many clean long-range looks out of simple pick-and-pops with Embiid guarding him (Shane Larkin, in particular, did a great job keeping Embiid focused on the ball and drawing him far from Horford):
On the plus side for Philly, Embiid showed he has the feet to get out to Horford and prevent easy shots (Horford scores here, but Embiid’s closeout and mobility are impressive):
Even when Embiid is able to recover, however, the sheer fact that he has to guard Horford on the perimeter opens up all kinds of options around the basket:
Embiid was critical of his defensive performance in Game 1, but the rest of the team will need to step up on that end too. In the minutes with Embiid guarding Horford, he won’t be able to provide consistent rim protection unless the Sixers change their matchups or their help schemes.
The series could be an epic chess match between Brad Stevens and Brett Brown with Al Horford and Joel Embiid serving as the most versatile and omnipotent pieces on the board. The winner will likely be determined by how each coach deploys his Queen.