For the last week, the Boston Celtics have known where they’d slot in the Eastern Conference pecking order. The opponent they would face in the first round of the playoffs, however, remained a mystery, though the team had potential matchups in mind.
“We’ve been looking at Philly obviously with the idea that they’re a likely opponent,” said coach Brad Stevens. “And they’re a heck of a team.”
That foresight has played out as the Celtics get set to take on the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series Monday near Orlando. Third-seeded Boston will face a familiar Atlantic Division foe in Philadelphia, which wrapped up the sixth seed in the East on Wednesday.
The Celtics were 1-3 against the 76ers during the regular season, though Philadelphia will take on a different complexion in the playoffs with All-Star guard Ben Simmons sidelined following knee surgery.
“In the games that Simmons hasn’t played, they’re the No. 1 offense in the league,” said Stevens. “The spacing, the shooting around [Joel] Embiid posting, the ability to play big with both Embiid and Al (Horford). … A bunch of shooters around them makes them very tough.”
The 76ers went 4-4 during the seeding portion of the NBA season restart, ending on a 2-3 stretch in the games without Simmons. Still, as Stevens alluded to, the team surpassed 100 points in each of those contests, with Horford slotting into the starting lineup in a bigger look.
Horford was with the Celtics last season, when they lost in five games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the playoffs.
“For us, it’s a great opportunity,” said Horford. “I’m grateful for another year to be in the playoffs and to be able to compete and go out there and do what we do.”
The 76ers also lost in the conference semifinals last season, falling by two points in Game 7 to the eventual champion Toronto Raptors.
“Now is our moment,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown. “Now is our time to be recognized. … I’m happy with the way we’re playing the game — I think there’s a great unity within the group.”
The Celtics, behind young stars in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and new addition Kemba Walker, are looking to make the leap back to the NBA Finals after losing in the conference finals in both 2017 and 2018. Boston was 5-3 in the bubble, winning four straight before resting its starters in a 96-90 loss to the Washington Wizards on Thursday.
“We’ve got to get our minds ready,” said reserve forward Semi Ojeleye, who lauded the bench’s chance for extra reps in Thursday’s game. “We’ve got a couple days to prepare, and we’ve got to keep that competitive spirit.”
Though there is no home-court advantage in the NBA bubble, the playoff format will largely stay the same, with teams playing every other day. Each series will be best-of-seven through the NBA Finals, which are set to conclude no later than Oct. 13.
The last time the Celtics and 76ers met in the playoffs was 2018, when Boston won 4-1 in the conference semifinals.
-Field Level Media