The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are all set to face off in an Eastern Conference Semifinals showdown that carries more weight than the usual second round series.
This best-of-seven between two of the three teams that dominated the East this season is likely to end up deciding their conference’s representative to this year’s NBA Finals following the collapse of the Milwaukee Bucks at the hands of the Miami Heat.
The Celtics and Sixers finished the regular season second and third, respectively, behind the top seed Bucks who were abruptly kicked out of the playoff picture.
Ultimately, the winner of this Boston-Philadelphia series will enter the Eastern Conference Finals as the presumptive favorite regardless of whether they face the upstart Heat or the New York Knicks. This makes their upcoming match-up even more crucial as both teams have clear championship aspirations this season.
The Celtics enter the second round with home court advantage, though they are coming off a six-game conquest over the Atlanta Hawks that was more grueling than it should have been. Boston had a prime opportunity at home to wrap up the series in five games, but Trae Young hit a three-pointer in the dying seconds of Game 5 to give the Hawks a two-point win that kept them alive.
Eventually, the Celtics eliminated Atlanta with a hard-fought 128-120 win on the road as Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined to score 62 points. While Boston should count its blessings and be thankful that they were not blindsided like Milwaukee, their extended series with the Hawks will not do them any favors against the well-rested Sixers.
Philadelphia is coming off a four-game sweep of the Brooklyn Nets that has bought them some time to recuperate. Over the past two seasons, the Sixers struggled to promptly close out their first round match-ups which, similar to the Celtics’ recent challenge with Atlanta, went longer than they should have. This time around, they swiftly went about their business against Brooklyn, but may be without the services of presumptive NBA Most Valuable Player Joel Embiid.
The six-time NBA All-Star missed Philadelphia’s Game 4 victory due to a knee injury that he suffered in the prior contest and his status for the opener versus Boston remains uncertain. Tobias Harris stepped up in his absence and put up 25 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Sixers to a 96-88 win. Four other Philadelphia players contributed at least 10 points too, including 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player James Harden who had 17 points, eight rebounds, 11 assists, a steal, and a block.
The 11-day break between Embiid’s last appearance and the upcoming Game 1 against the Celtics greatly improves the chances that he can suit up, though it is difficult to be optimistic about his status given the extensive history of injuries that he has dealt with through the years.
If Embiid can suit up for the Sixers and play up to the lofty standard that he has set for himself this season, this series may go down as the highlight of this year’s postseason. It became apparent as early as the last few weeks of the regular season that this heavyweight Boston and Philadelphia second round duel was highly plausible. However, the Heat’s upset of the Bucks has upped the stakes of this battle.
More than any other series, the play of the superstars on both sides will likely determine the outcome of this clash. It will be fascinating to see if Boston’s dynamic duo can remain focused on their mission to avenge last year’s NBA Finals defeat or if Embiid can continue building on the finest season of his career to date with his first ever Conference Finals appearance.