The Philadelphia 76ers are one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals. After one of their best all-around performances in a while, the Sixers can close out the Boston Celtics in Game 6.
The Sixers have the momentum right now but the Celtics will not be pushed over so easily again. They’re used to forcing a Game 7 by winning on the road, as they did so just last season against the Milwaukee Bucks. Differences between those two Boston squads and their opponents notwithstanding, it’s a sign that this game will not be easy for Joel Embiid, James Harden and the Philly squad.
Embiid isn’t letting a 3-2 series lead impact his mindset. He knows the job is far from over and his teammates are surely following in his footsteps. With the franchise’s biggest win in two decades up for grabs, here are the biggest points of focus as Philly looks to close out the Celtics.
3. Keep spamming the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll
Sixers fans will be keeping their attention on Al Horford, ready to boo him and cheer when he makes mistakes. Philly should give them ammo by continuing to challenge him on defense. Keep things simple and don’t fix what’s broken. Simply let Harden and Embiid cook.
The Celtics have switched the EmBeard pick-and-roll at times, generating disastrous results for their defense. The key for them has been for Horford to step up closer to Harden to take away the pocket pass to Embiid at the free-throw line. But Philly has improved its spacing and off-ball movement to make sure he can’t camp there and the guys behind him can’t fill the lane.
Film room: Looking at the Sixers’ subtle tweak that opened up the Harden-Embiid pick-and-roll: https://t.co/hRlu3aIn6o pic.twitter.com/Z0YXNkMFQG
— Rich Hofmann (@rich_hofmann) May 11, 2023
While Horford did a great job of locking Embiid up at the end of Game 4, the rest of his time guarding him this series has not been fruitful. Embiid can overpower him whenever he wants. Harden drawing the switch onto him eventually opens up a path to drive. If Joe Mazzulla wants to keep Horford out there because of his shooting, the Sixers’ stars should continue exploiting his diminishing defensive abilities.
Boston could make a lineup adjustment to make Robert Williams the starting center. His mobility, strength and rebounding would be very beneficial but his inability to space the color would allow Embiid — who is already protecting the paint at a spectacular level — to chill by the hoop even more. Going extra small with Grant Williams at center is also an option, though not one that Mazzulla has looked to all that often.
Regardless of who lines up against Embiid and Harden, the Sixers will turn to them for offense time and time again.
2. Feed Tyrese Maxey
Maxey had the game the Sixers have been waiting for: he shot the lights out and stayed engaged on offense, scoring 30 points in Game 5 after having 27 combined in the previous two. The key that unlocked Maxey in Game 5, according to Doc Rivers, was simply getting him the ball to involve him on offense.
The Sixers can let Maxey get some reps in the pick-and-roll with Embiid and put him in a spot to get him the ball on the wing when Harden runs it. His shooting off the wing spaces the floor out well for the two stars as they work together. In Philly’s rare transition opportunities, Maxey has the speed to succeed and the footwork to comfortably shoot a triple on the run.
It will be on Maxey to make the most of his touches, too. If the Celtics bring their big men higher up in the pick-and-roll to take away Maxey’s pull-up shooting, which he made several of last game, he has to get downhill and be ready to kick it out to shooters. Rather than getting tricked into thinking he can get up a quick layup past their athletic defenders, he has to be ready to go to the floater and/or stay patient.
While keeping Tobias Harris involved would be helpful, too, it’s Maxey who should be expected to step up again. Bucking his trend of getting smacked around by the Celtics was a huge step number one. Step two: keep it that way.
1. Control the boards
Rebounding has been a sore spot for the Sixers at times in this series. Hustling to the ball and making quick decisions out of the chaos has allowed kept the Celtics’ scoring runs going. In Game 2, they kept the wheels of their onslaught greased by following up their misses with second-chance points. In Game 3, they controlled the fourth quarter.
But even on the other end, rebounding will be key to swing points in the Sixers’ favor. Corralling their own misses not only gives them the chance to score again but keeps the Celtics out of transition, where they thrive. Of course, P.J. Tucker showed the value of crashing the glass in Game 4 with an offensive rebound and putback that turned the tides of the series back in Philadelphia’s favor. Harris scored twice off of his own offensive rebounds in Game 5.
Above all else, Philly has to come out with more intensity than in any of their prior games. Rebounding will be a part of it but it doesn’t even come close to stopping there. In every facet of their game plan and possession of the game, they have to leave everything out there on the Wells Fargo Center court. They might as well act like the game isn’t at their own home.
At the Sixers’ shootaround prior to the game, Tucker was asked about the comfort level of playing a potential close-out game at home. “None,” he said. “There’s no comfort in the playoffs. All the way, it’s gonna be tough, it’s gonna be a dog fight, they’re gonna give us everything they got. We gotta be locked in for it.”
The Sixers have to listen to Tucker’s message and play harder than ever before against the Celtics in Game 6.
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