Celtics vs. 76ers live stream: Watch NBA Playoffs Game 1 online

For the better part of Joel Embiid’s NBA existence, the Boston Celtics have had the luxury of elite backline defenders to limit his impact in head-to-head matchups.

Then Al Horford got a payday last summer to join forces with the All-Star he once stifled, and the Celtics had to move Aron Baynes in order to free the necessary cap space to pursue a new path forward with Kemba Walker.

Now, as the Celtics and Sixers prepare to joust in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the -- ahem -- big question is how in the world can a Boston team thin on size possibly negate Embiid over the course of a best-of-seven series?

With the season-ending injury to Ben Simmons, Boston’s top priority has to be limiting Embiid’s impact when the series tips Monday night. The Sixers have rarely shown the consistency necessary to hang with an elite opponent over a seven-game series, but Embiid going supernova is the quickest path to making things interesting in a hurry.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-76ers, which begins Monday at 5:30 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at 6:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

All of which puts Boston’s big men — Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, and Robert Williams — in the spotlight. Can that group hold up against Embiid and allow Boston to capitalize on its advantages at other spots on the floor?

The Celtics can lean on knowledge gleaned over the course of four regular-season meetings, including their lone win over Philadelphia in February in which Boston was able to stymie Embiid by rarely allowing him to get comfortable around the basket.

But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all defense with Embiid.  So here’s a few things to watch for: 

WHEN THEIS IS ON THE FLOOR

Theis is a solid defender but he’s routinely struggled against bigs when giving up both size and heft. In 1-on-1 situations, Embiid can overwhelm Theis around the basket. In a February matchup, the Celtics sought to negate that by routinely having a second defender rush over towards Embiid to both deter him from driving into the paint, or force him into a bad shot or a tough pass.

At least for one night, it worked well. Embiid scored quickly when Boston was late with a second defender on the game’s first possession but he missed his next 10 shots (though, to be fair, he did have some open perimeter looks that he simply didn’t make).

Watch below as Embiid strikes quick then Boston makes it a point the rest of the night to send that extra body to either force the ball out of his hands or settle for a bad shot:

With no Simmons on the floor, you’d think it might make Boston’s task easier. But as coach Brad Stevens has pointed out numerous times already, the Sixers have actually been one of the league’s best offenses without Simmons. Stevens noted how their offensive rating spikes up higher than the league-best Mavericks without Simmons.

How is that possible when Simmons can be such a matchup problem? It takes a player that’s not willing to shoot 3s and adds another perimeter threat around Embiid, making it harder for teams to cheat the way they might have with Simmons.

"I think that’s the thing that nobody is really focusing on or talking about is that, with Simmons out, they have shooting at every other position,” said Stevens. "All nine of their guys that will play around Embiid will shoot the ball. It makes it very difficult. You have to pick your position at times and we have a great deal of respect for him. 

"We’ve played him in the past but, obviously, the way they’re playing now and the way they’re spreading the floor around him makes it very difficult. That’s why their offense is so good right now.”

Stevens’ point is valid but the Celtics would still probably prefer to let the Shake Miltons of the world beat them rather than let Embiid take over. Sending extra defenders at Embiid will force the supporting cast to win the series. The Sixers also don’t have anywhere near the shooting they’ve had in the past with a JJ Redick type out there, so it means in-season pickups like Alec Burks has to be a game-changer.

WHEN KANTER IS ON THE FLOOR

Rewind to opening night and the Celtics initially went with Kanter at the starting spot because, for all his deficiencies in pick-and-roll defense, he can still engage in hand-to-hand combat with someone like Embiid and hold his own.

Kanter isn’t exactly Baynes but in a team-high 12 minutes of matchup time against Embiid this season, he did limit the All-Star big man to 7-of-19 shooting (36.8 percent) with two blocks.

Kanter has to avoid fouling (four shooting fouls helped Embiid total 21 total points in those possessions) but Kanter’s presence takes some pressure off having to always send an extra body. That doesn’t mean Boston won’t send help it can just be more judicious. That could allow Boston’s defense to stay at home more and takes away Embiid’s ability to spray the ball out to open shooters.

Kanter wouldn’t bite when asked about the best way to neutralize Embiid.

"I don’t want to give the game plan,” said Kanter. "Obviously, Embiid, I got a lot of respect for him. This guy missed [the first two] years of his career, and now he’s playing unbelievable. It’s no secret, he’s one of the best big-men in the league. 

"I think, just to guard him, it cannot be just one guy. I think it’s going to be a whole team defense to slow him down. If you look at the last game we played against them in Boston, I think we slowed him down, not just him, but them pretty good -- we beat them by what? Twenty-something? I think it’s going to be a fun matchup because whenever you go against a big man like that you always see where you’re at. It’s a good challenge for the bigs, for everybody. Everybody has to be ready.”

Celtics Talk Podcast: The Al Horford conundrum and why Sixers won’t last long vs. Celtics | Listen & subscribe | Watch on YouTube

WHEN WILLIAMS IS ON THE FLOOR

Williams played only one game against Philadelphia, that opening-night tilt, and his minutes were staggered so that he never matched up with Embiid. It will be interesting to see if Stevens tests that pairing in the postseason, maybe hoping that Williams’ rim-running ways could help wear down Embiid by forcing him to chut up and down the floor.

Williams would be giving up size against Embiid but could negate some of that with athleticism. Still, it seems more likely that Williams — or any other small-ball center — would be utilized in non-Embiid situations.

WHEN MARCUS SMART IS ON THE FLOOR

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Boston’s other “center” — or stretch 6, as Marcus Smart prefers to be called. It’s fair to assume now that Smart is going to spend at least a couple possessions each game guarding one of the opposing team’s 7-footers. NBA data has him guarding Embiid for only 43 seconds this season but these two will be well-acquainted in the playoffs — even if it’s just Smart as one of the players frequently rushing over trying to fluster Embiid. 

Two years ago in the playoffs, back when the Celtics had Horford and Baynes at their disposal, Smart still logged more than two defensive possessions per game against Embiid. The NBA’s tracking data suggests Embiid often capitalized and turned the possession into points but Smart isn’t going to be bashful if he finds himself switched onto the big man.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Embiid is simply too good not to commit extra bodies to stopping him. It’s going to take a full-team effort to slow him down but the goal will be to force him into low-percentage shots. Boston can also create transition opportunities off turnovers.

How much Boston can send those double teams will likely be dictated largely by the performance of Philly’s supporting cast. If role players are hitting 3-pointers, it’ll force Boston to be more conservative with Embiid. If Embiid is starting to singlehandedly take over, the Celtics can counter with more pressure.

But there is no chess match more important than Embiid vs. Boston bigs in dictating just how long this series lasts.

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