NBA

Philadelphia 76ers have come a long way but the series with the Boston Celtics has shown they still have further to go

Jay Asser 15:24 06/05/2018
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Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are getting their first taste of the playoffs.

It’s been a fun ride, but it’s time for the Philadelphia 76ers to Process this: they still have a long way to go to get where they want.

Declarations that the 76ers’ rebuild is complete and title contention will be a regularity going forward were as premature as the confetti shot off at Wells Fargo Center at the end of regulation in the Boston Celtics’ 101-98 overtime win in Game 3 of the second round series.

Winning 52 games and a first-round series in a season where Ben Simmons put together a Rookie of the Year campaign and Joel Embiid stayed relatively healthy is a massive success for a franchise that was trapped in the lottery as recently as a year ago.

That success came faster than anticipated, which is why expectations were (justifiably) raised ahead of the playoffs. And with how wide open the East looked due to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ struggles, the Toronto Raptors’ unreliable nature and the Celtics’ injury woes, it actually appeared as if the stars were aligning for Philadelphia to reach the NBA Finals.

But the second round against Boston has splashed some cold water on Process truthers and provided much-needed perspective on where the 76ers are right now.

An argument can be made that Philadelphia’s current predicament of being down 3-0 in the series has more to do with the Celtics than it does with the 76ers’ limitations. After all, playoffs are often about matchups and Philadelphia just looked like world-beaters en route to a gentleman’s sweep over Miami a round earlier. It’s not crazy to think the 76ers might be faring better if they were playing Cleveland or Toronto, based on the strengths and weaknesses of those teams.

Nevertheless, Boston has exposed Philadelphia’s deficiencies in ways that aren’t unique to just them. And it starts with the 76ers two cornerstones: Simmons and Embiid.

Aside from the one-point stinker he had in Game 2, Simmons has been his usual self scoring-wise in the series, averaging 17.0 points on 56.0 per cent shooting. But those stats don’t begin to tell how the Celtics have corralled him in the half-court and leveraged not just inability to shoot, but his unwillingness to.

It may only seem like a subtle difference, but Boston’s advantage of completely ignoring Simmons when he’s beyond the arc has allowed them to tweak their defensive positioning to the point they can simultaneously cover the paint and stick with Philadelphia’s shooters – essentially playing five-on-four on occasion.

By keeping Simmons in front of them and then challenging him to score over their long defenders when he drives, the Celtics have shut off a lot of drive-and-kick opportunities. Boston haven’t been as successful when back-up T.J. McConnell has been on the floor – McConnell is plus-19 in the series while Simmons is minus-19 – because of his quickness and ability to keep the defence somewhat honest.

McConnell plays his role extremely well, but he can only help to a certain extent. You know who would be a perfect complement to Simmons and give the 76ers what they need? The Markelle Fultz that came out of college, before… whatever it is that derailed his rookie season.

Fultz

It’s way too early to say Fultz won’t ever be that, but it’s also no sure thing to say he’ll return to what he was, let alone develop into a star. If he does, he could be the missing link and final piece of the 76ers’ puzzle. But again, that’s a big ‘if’.

As far as Embiid, this second round has shown he’s far from a finished product.

He’s averaging 24.3 points against the Celtics, but it’s his 43.5 per cent shooting that’s been more telling of how the series has gone for him. Boston have been mostly content with leaving Aron Baynes or Al Horford in single coverage against him and living with post-up after post-up. Embiid is an absolute load to deal with, but his post game still leaves a lot to be desired.

And on the other end of the floor, the Celtics have sapped his rim protection by dragging him out near the perimeter with bigs who can knock down jumpers.

Embiid and Simmons are just 24 and 21, respectively, so it would be foolish to assume they won’t get better. Their shortcomings in this series shouldn’t be viewed as a failure, but rather as an indication of the room they still have to grow.

The Process, insofar as the methodology of tanking to acquire draft picks, may be over.

However, the next phase – going from good to great – has just begun.

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