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Joel Embiid's defense will be key for Sixers against Celtics

Al Horford has been an anchor and leading scorer for the Celtics in the playoffs, it'll be up to Joel Embiid to change that.

Sixers center Joel Embiid adjust his facial mask against the Miami Heat in game five of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Tuesday, April 24, 2018 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Sixers center Joel Embiid adjust his facial mask against the Miami Heat in game five of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Tuesday, April 24, 2018 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff PhotographerRead moreYONG KIM

Looking at the Sixers-Celtics upcoming playoff series through the lens of how they matched up during the regular season would be a mistake.

The teams met four times this season with Boston winning three of those contests, with Kyrie Irving. With Irving out of the lineup on Jan. 18, their final regular-season game against each other, the Sixers won, 89-80. But, JJ Redick did not play in that game, Jerryd Bayless started in his place, Trevor Booker was a Sixer, and it was before Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli were added to the Sixers roster.

Both teams are different now, and it's a better idea to look at how they have played through the first round. So let's take a look at the numbers that matter.

The Sixers will be looking to be more efficient from three-point range after shooting just 36.3 percent from deep against the Heat, and they will still want to keep an eye on turnovers. But, make no mistake, Joel Embiid will be the key against the Celtics.

It was seemingly easy for the Sixers to make Hassan Whiteside a non-factor in the first-round series against Miami, which made the matchup more perimeter focused (i.e. Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow).

The Celtics will be a different beast.

Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier have stepped up for the Celtics since Irving was shut down in March, but it has been Al Horford anchoring the team throughout their seven-game series against Milwaukee. Horford is averaging a team-leading 18.1 points and 8.7 rebounds in the playoffs.

Horford scored a playoff career-high 26 points in the final game against Milwaukee on Saturday going 13-of-17 from the field and grabbing eight rebounds.

"Al Horford is one of my favorite players in the NBA," Sixers guard JJ Redick said Sunday. "I have so much respect for him, and he's obviously a huge key to this series."

Rebounding and scoring in the paint have been huge for Boston and Horford has led that charge. Embiid will need to focus on positioning to limit Horford on the offensive glass.

The Celtics will no doubt look to draw Embiid out of the paint by putting Horford on the perimeter and running some higher pick-and-roll sets. The Sixers' ability to switch will serve them well here. The versatility of Ilyasova and Dario Saric will work in tandem with Embiid's effort to limit Boston from scoring in the paint.

"We saw snapshots of what would happen with [Kelly] Olynyk," Brett Brown said, referring to the first-round series against Miami. "There are portions of that series that have helped us, and Ersan could factor in to that."

Outside of Embiid making his mark defensively, the Sixers very simply need to stay the course.

The Sixers have a better defensive rating (101.6) and offensive rating (109.6) in the playoffs than the Celtics do. They are statistically performing at a higher level in every category other than turnovers than the Celtics are.

Brown suffered a hamstring injury in the Celtics' Game 7 victory over the Bucks, saying that he's going to do everything be can to make sure he's ready for Game 1 against the Sixers. Brown, who is averaging 17.9 points per game, is questionable for the first game in Boston, according to Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. Brown's absence could be the perfect opportunity for the Sixers to steal one on the road and reclaim the home-court advantage.