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2018 NBA playoffs

Sixers and Celtics prepare for tight clash in the East 

by Sam Beech 


AP Images

The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics begin their Eastern Conference semifinal series in Boston Monday night.


The 76ers have been the hottest team in the NBA over the last several weeks, winning their final 16 regular season games, and taking care of the Miami Heat in five games in their first round playoff series. Meanwhile, the Celtics are coming off a draining seven-game series with the Milwaukee Bucks.


Philadelphia’s late season outburst has it as the prohibitive favorite in the series, but Boston has home-court advantage and a squad that has had little drop off, despite a plethora of injuries.


We attempt to examine the potentially tightest series remaining in the playoffs, through a statistical lens.



Winning the Three-point Battle


Philadelphia’s late season success is partly attributable to the mid-season acquisitions of three-point shooters Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. The veteran floor spacers have made the Sixers offense more dynamic, giving Ben Simmons more options to distribute to; their presence also has given Joel Embiid more room to operate in the post.


The Celtics have the type of defense that can neutralize these snipers. The Celtics ranked first in the league in defending three-pointers in the regular season, allowing opponents to shoot only 33.9% from downtown. 


A problem for Boston—and a reason why their first round series against the Bucks was so tight—is their three-point defense has not been nearly as stout so far in the postseason. The Celtics allowed the Bucks, a team ranked 22nd in the league three-point efficiency, to convert on 37.2% of their tries from long range.


Could this be an aberration? It might be, since three-point shooting tends to vary more from game-to-game than two-point shooting—and could be inflated in a seven-game sample size. But if Philadelphia is able to get open looks that Milwaukee got, then Boston will be in trouble. 


On the flip side, the Celtics were second in the NBA in three-point efficiency this year at 37.7%— only trailing the Golden State Warriors. Philadelphia had the second-best three-point defense (behind Boston) this year—holding opponents to a lowly 34.2% from distance.


We have two good three-point shooting offenses going against two good three-point shooting defenses, and any advantage in this fairly even category could potentially swing the series.

The Sixers on the Boards


The Sixers’ primary advantage in this series is their ability to rebound. Philadelphia grabs an average of 5.2 boards per game more than its opponents, a league best.  The Sixers rank first in the NBA in total rebounding (47.4 per game) and defensive rebounding (36.5); and third in offensive rebounding (10.9).


The Celtics are a pretty good rebounding team overall, ranking eighth in the league in total boards (44.5), and sixth on the defensive glass (35.1). However, Boston is a below-average team in offensive rebounding.


The greatest takeaway here is that Philadelphia should be able to minimize second chance opportunities for Boston. The Sixers are better than anyone at cleaning up the defensive glass, while the Celtics are mediocre at creating extra possessions on the offensive boards. Since Philadelphia has a clear talent edge, Boston will need as many extra opportunities to score as possible. 



Boston Turning Philly Over


The Celtics have been one of the stingiest defenses in the NBA this season, ranking first in the NBA in defensive ranking (103.9 rating). Brad Stevens does an excellent job of frustrating faster-paced teams by slowing the game down.


This could be a problem for Philadelphia, because it is a turnover-prone team that thrives at a faster pace. The Sixers turn the ball over more than any team in the NBA, at a rate of 16.5 per game; they also have the highest turnover percentage at 14.6%.


Philadelphia is fourth in the NBA in pace, and a slower pace implemented by the Celtics (22nd in pace) could throw the Sixers out of rhythm and create problems.



The outlook


This series could come down to Boston’s home-court advantage. Philadelphia has the talent edge, but Boston has a more ideal team structure based on our MESH ratings. If Boston uses its home-court advantage to instill its style of play, I think the Celtics will win a tough, rivoting series in seven games.

*Statistical support from Basketball Reference and NBA Miner was used in this article.

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