They may not be the final boss, but Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics are the toughest test so far for Ben Simmons and his Sixers.
Reality check: the Celtics are still elite. It’s easy to overlook a team like Boston, one that’s minus star point guard, Kyrie Irving. But how did we forget about this defence? It’s only one game, but so far it’s been amazing, as Ben Simmons and co. found out firsthand on Tuesday. The Sixers were swept off their feet in Boston, suffering a 16-point loss – their largest defeat in the playoffs thus far.
At $3.00 to win the East and $6.00 to win the Finals, the oh-so-convincing Sixers probably have some punters on edge right now. Following a commanding series win over the Heat in the opening round, a five-game stretch that saw Simmons average 18.2 points-per-game, Monday’s loss was a harsh reminder that going all-in on a team with such little playoff experience is risky business.
It’s fair to say the Sixers weren’t their usual selves in Game 1, and the same can be said for the future Rookie of the Year. Simmons was outmuscled from start to finish, totalling just 18 points, seven rebounds, and seven turnovers. That last part, the turnovers, is what should have punters a little concerned. It’s not un-Simmons like to lose the handle or make a few bad decisions from time to time, but against a defensive powerhouse like Boston, those kind of mistakes rarely go unpunished.
With that said, though, it wasn’t just Simmons who was outmuscled – the Sixers as a whole failed to show up for the arm wrestle. So how can we regain that confident Philly feeling Simmons and the Sixers are going to rebound and book a date with the Eastern Conference Finals? A lot of it’s easier said than done, but for a team, and a player as talented as Simmons, there’s certainly no reason to panic just yet.
Again, it’s one game, but this is a part of Simmons’ skill-set that pundits have been harping on about for years. He’s missing a jump shot, and although we’ve known that for some time, the fact Joel Embiid put up 31-points in Game 1 and the Sixers still lost should tell you something about this offense.
As a unit, the Sixers made just 35 of their attempted 83 field goals on Monday, rounding out to an ugly 42% from the field. Of course, nothing comes easy against the Celtics, but for a Philly team that became the fourth most proficient three-point scoring team in NBA playoff history during their series against the Heat, this certainly came as a surprise.
As you can see, the Celtics allowed the third fewest field-goals in the league during the regular season. It’s a credit to Brad Stevens’ defence, but it only further dots the exclamation point on one of Simmons’ biggest needs.
Throughout the playoffs, Simmons has jacked up only one three-pointer. That’s business as usual, but attempting only 11 field goals against a team that blocks the lanes so expertly like Boston do is cause for concern. It’s an area Sixers’ coach Brett Brown will look to address ahead of Game 2 on Friday, but a lot of it just comes down to confidence. We saw Simmons become less of a “pass first”, unselfish guy towards the end of the regular season, but he needs to step up and hit those mid-range jumpers when they’re on offer.
You’d be forgiven for thinking Simmons might just go his whole career without having to develop a solid jump shot. He was dazzling around the rim in the Miami series, yet here we are, and already it looks like the linchpin of the Sixers’ offense needs to start sinking some swishes, quickly.
Deadly Duo: Al Horford & Marcus Smart
When the Celtics lost Kyrie Irving, a lot of people forgot that deep within Boston’s woodwork, lies some serious talent. Enter Al Horford and Marcus Smart, the two players in charge of making Simmons’ life a living hell during the next week or so.
On Monday, Horford toyed with Simmons for much of the game. Boston is the one team that can match up well with Simmons both in height and in reach, and Horford is certainly the man for the job as far as the Celtics are concerned. Particularly around half-court, Horford held Simmons up nicely, which of course led to those seven turnovers and a disrupt in the Sixers’ offensive flow. Marcus Smart is also the kind of player that allows his opponent zero breathing room, which in turn caused plenty of hesitation in Simmons’ pass and shot selection.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad, and as you can see below, when Simmons is actually allowed to find his lane and drive to the rim, good things can happen.
Ben Simmons toyed with Al Horford all the way down the court and finished with an easy dunk pic.twitter.com/r7PIoPzNKL
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) May 1, 2018
The key word here, though, is transition. Philly’s game plan is simple: keep the ball out of the net in their own end, counter hard, and transition the ball through Simmons who can either, a) head for a dunk/layup, or b) flick the ball out to Robert Covington for the three. During Game 1, the Sixers struggled to accomplish any of that, largely due to not only Horford and Smart, but the entirety of the Celtics’ lineup stepping up to shut down the Sixers on both ends of the floor.
Beating Brad Stevens
Here’s where it gets tricky, how do you defeat a coach that can turn a bunch of bench players into superstars with some clever scheming and defensive zoning?
There’s no doubt Stevens is the 2018 Coach of the Year. He’s Gregg Popovich-ian in the way he can transform a lineup from game to game, shutdown star players, and somehow create offense out of names that would be nobodies elsewhere in the league. So how does that relate to Simmons exactly?
That right there is the box score from Game 1. If the Sixers really are to win this series in six games, they can’t afford to allow Boston to put up three consecutive quarters of 30 points. That comes down to Simmons himself playing defence, which in turn will lead to more offensive opportunities. One player in particular Simmons has to help shutdown is Terry Rozier. ‘Scary Terry’ pumped the Sixers for 29 points on Monday, but he also finished with eight rebounds. Next on the priority list is Horford – Stevens chose to play him both at power-forward and at centre during Game 1, utilising his versatility wisely.
What punters can hang their hat on here, though, is that Boston probably can’t keep this up. Alongside Rozier, Jayson Tatum and Marcus Morris combined for 39 points, which is highly unlikely to happen again, especially when this series shifts back to Philly. Simmons meanwhile, needs to adjust to Stevens’ schemes mid-game, because things are only going to get harder. The Celtics’ coach threw the kitchen sink at a team that lacks playoff experience, now Simmons needs to show he really is the General of this offense.
Ambition > Inexperience
Want to know how much playoff experience the top four Sixers players actually have? Zero.
Remember who the Sixers have played in the lead up to their series against Boston?
As you can see, aside from the Heat in the opening round, the Sixers closed out the season to some fairly below average opponents defensively. That’s why Monday’s reality check was such a shock, because, for the first time in a long time, Philly came up against a defence that could match them in every aspect of the game.
Boston recruits so well. They draft and spend their money for this exact type of matchup, now Simmons and the Sixers need to overcome their Game 1 hiccup and do some offensive and defensive scheming of their own. Punters will rest easy knowing Simmons typically performs better on the road, averaging more points per game and attempting more shots. The first step is trusting the process. The second step is a bounce-back win for the $1.59 favourites in Boston.