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Playoff Loss to Celtics Left a Bad Taste to an Otherwise Strong 76ers Season

Playoff Loss to Celtics Left a Bad Taste to an Otherwise Strong 76ers Season
The 76ers far exceeded expectations this season, yet there was a sense of disappointment after they were eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games by the Boston Celtics.

Three of the four losses in the series to Boston were by five or fewer points, but it was the Celtics who came up big in crunch time while also exposing some of the Sixers inadequacies.

The Sixers won 52 games in the regular season (after winning 28 the year before) and were decisive in beating the Miami Heat in five games in the opening playoff round.

Most were talking about the Sixers getting to the Eastern Conference championship after such a convincing series win over the Heat. The thinking was, that Boston was without its top two injured players Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and had to play Game 1 without valuable swingman Jaylen Brown, who was nursing a hamstring injury.
That said, Boston proved to be a much more physical team and the Sixers, who were able to handle the physical play of Miami the previous series, had few answers.

In addition, Ben Simmons, who averaged nearly a triple-double in the Miami series, struggled against a Celtics team that made driving to the basket difficult, daring the likely Rookie of the Year to shoot from the outside.

On the surface, Simmons’ stats against the Celtics weren’t bad – 14.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists. However, he also averaged 4.8 turnovers and shot 47.5 percent, continually failing to finish around the basket.

In addition, Joel Embiid had impressive stats, 23.0 points and 14.0 rebounds, but he was not a main factor late in the games and his conditioning will have to improve.
Granted, he was dealing with some nagging injuries, a shoulder and elbow in addition to having to wear that uncomfortable mask.

Still, as the cornerstones of the team, Simmons and Embiid are held to a higher standard and both showed that improvement will be needed if the Sixers intend to take that next step.
What was disconcerting to Sixers fans is that Boston, should only improve, especially with young players like 24-year-old Terry Rozier, Brown, 21 and 20-year-old Jayson Tatum flourishing against the Sixers.

Everybody talks about the youth on the Sixers, but Boston had Rozier, Brown, Tatum and defensive whiz Marcus Smart are all 24 or younger.

The Celtics also benefited from having one of the great leaders in the NBA, forward-center Al Horford, a player versatile enough to guard Simmons and Embiid and do a good job on both.
Boston coach Brad Stevens had a masterful series, not only taking away Simmons’ drives to the basket, limiting the damage of the Sixers three-point shooting.

While Sixers coach Brett Brown did an excellent job getting the Sixers to this point, Stevens had the coaching edge during this series.

The Sixers shot just 30.9 percent from three point range. JJ Redick, who shot 42 percent from three-point range during the regular season, was limited to 34.2 percent against the Celtics.
Stevens decided that he didn’t want to allow open looks from three-point range, even if it meant Embiid would have one-on-one opportunities.

That strategy worked and when Embiid would get hot, then Boston at times would double-team him.

One positive for the Sixers was the play in the final two games of Dario Saric. The second-year forward struggled in the first three, but averaged 26 points in the final two.

Robert Covington picked an inopportune time to hit a slump, shooting 26.8 percent from the field in the Boston series and 25 percent from three-point range.

The one player who performed admirably was point guard T.J. McConnell, who after the 3-0 deficit, was inserted into the starting lineup.

He was the hero of the lone win, with 19 points, eight rebounds, five assists and no turnovers and a plus-18 rating in the 103-92 victory.

The fact that top overall pick Markelle Fultz didn’t play in the Boston series, puts major question marks about his future. The Sixers traded with Boston for the top pick, with Boston falling to No. 3. The Celtics selected Tatum, who averaged 23.7 points against the Sixers.

The fate of Fultz will be just one of many offseason questions the Sixers will have to answer. At his closing press conference, Brown suggested the Sixers need a top quality free agent to get to the next level. Of course, LeBron James could be a free agent and everybody knows that he is No. 1 on the Sixers (and every other teams’ list).

So the offseason promises to be fascinating. All the good will of an outstanding regular season and the first round playoff win, seemed to go out the window after the loss to the Celtics.

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That’s because Boston should be a top team in the East for at least the next five seasons. The question will be whether the Sixers can keep pace and eventually surpass their biggest rival.
 
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Author: Marc Narducci; Photo by Marc Narducci

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