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  • Philly seemingly still has the talent to win, but no matter who is on the roster, the Sixers need to find answers for problems against the Celtics that date back to last season.
By Rohan Nadkarni
February 12, 2019

The Celtics still appear to be the Sixers’ kryptonite. Boston scored a 112–109 victory over its East rival Tuesday, winning without Kyrie Irving against a Jimmy Butler-and-Tobias Harris aided Philly squad. Here’s a concerning trend for the Sixers: They lost to the Celtics in five games in the East Semis last year, when Boston didn’t have Irving or Gordon Hayward. Philly has remade its roster twice since then (!), swinging big trades for Butler and Harris. And what they have to show for those moves is an 0–3 record against the Celtics this season, with three versions of Sixers rosters taking an L. Here are a few takeaways on the latest matchup in this budding rivalry, and what they could mean in a potential postseason matchup:

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Al Horford is always at his best against Philly 

Sixers fans will scream for what probably should have been a foul on Horford during a late possession Tuesday, but the Celtics big man continues to frustrate Joel Embiid. Horford helped keep JoJo to 23 points on an inefficient 9-of-22 shooting. Horford’s ability to play one-on-one in the post often forces Embiid to settle for threes, which is a win for the Boston defense. Horford can also switch onto wing threats, which is a credit to him as well as the length elsewhere on the floor. (Marcus Smart is also a factor here.) Horford has now built up a substantial body of work excelling against Philly. The Sixers will have no easy answers for him come playoff time. Embiid probably needs to commit to playing more on the block, but there’s a fine line between building rhythm in the post and forcing shots, especially when a bunch of perimeter players need to eat. Unlike most other teams, Philly can’t expect to have a huge advantage at center when playing Boston. That may mean leaning more on Butler and Simmons.

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J.J. Redick has nowhere to hide

The Celtics employed a little bit of bully ball Tuesday, hunting Redick whenever he was on the floor. Boston wasted no time posting up whoever Redick was defending, and Brett Brown finally relented late in the fourth, subbing out J.J. for a key defensive possession. Redick isn’t a full-blown liability. He was still a plus-eight Tuesday. But his defensive issues will be magnified again in the playoffs, and the Celtics went after him gleefully last year as well. I wonder if Jonathon Simmons or James Ennis will end up playing a bigger role than expected in a postseason series between these clubs. Simmons and Ennis are nowhere near the shooters Redick is, but they have some level of gravity on the offensive end, and offer a lot more flexibility defensively. It’s not quite a one-for-one switch. Redick is supremely important to Philly’s offense. But if there’s a night when his shot is not falling, Brown shouldn’t be afraid to utilize his team’s depth.

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Don’t forget about Gordon Hayward

The small forward had a big impact Tuesday, scoring 26 points in 28 minutes, thanks in large part to six-of-seven shooting from three. Hayward is far from returning to his star form from Utah, but his big night helped majorly offset the loss of Irving. As much as the Sixers have remade their roster since the end of the 2018 season, the Celtics will also look much different this coming postseason. Hayward doesn’t even have to be a star in a hypothetical series, but becoming a consistent scoring option would add an impressive layer to Boston‘s offense. The Sixers were absolutely right to trade for Harris—his rough shooting night Tuesday notwithstanding. Hayward emerging from his season long slump however, (admittedly a pretty big task), could render the Harris acquisition moot.

This is a pretty rosy outlook for the Celtics. If Harris hits a couple threes or if Butler sinks a couple key free throws, the Sixers could have easily been winners Tuesday. Still, it has to be fairly concerning to Philly that no matter who it has on the floor, it can’t quite seem to figure out Boston. The collision course these teams were on opening night is now much more crowded. There’s no guarantee the Celtics and Sixers match up in the postseason, and some more tinkering could still go down in the buyout market. For now, Boston would still seem to have the upper hand in this rivalry. Philly seemingly still has the talent to win, but no matter who is on the roster, the Sixers need to find answers for problems that date back to last summer.

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