That’s a tough matchup for anyone because both players have similar skills, move well without the ball and can create their own shots. The Celtics feel comfortable with either player taking big fourth-quarter shots, giving the club a touch of unpredictability and flexibility in close games.
This is especially heightened against the Sixers, who are without Simmons because of a knee injury suffered during the seeded portion of the restart schedule. Simmons will likely make the All-Defensive team because of his 6-10 height, quick hands and an equal ability to protect the perimeter and the rim. He can also disrupt passing lanes and did a credible job against Tatum this season.
“Even without Ben we have a team that’s capable,” said coach Brett Brown. “Ben’s demise is punishing. What it means is you’ve got to go down to other players. It leads into a lot of other things, the group effort and the game plan’s got to be precise. You don’t have the wiggle room of a misstep or a mistake. I see it that simply. That’s how I see the lack of having Ben.”
The Sixers clearly suffered Monday without Simmons, and therefore this playoffs series, which traditionally ranks among the NBA’s best over multiple decades, loses luster and likely suspense as well, even if Joel Embiid is the best player on the floor.
“I still like the spirit of the group,” Brown said. “I believe we have enough depth and talent to do great things in the playoffs. We’re very reliant on a togetherness, on Joel, on a well executed game plan.”
The Rockets are in a better place with Westbrook, whose quad injury isn’t playoff-threatening. He sat Tuesday’s game and isn’t projected to rejoin the Rockets until Game 3 at the latest. That’s a temporary inconvenience for the Rockets in what should be a tight matchup with Oklahoma City, Westbrook’s former team. It places a heavier load on the rotational players who support James Harden; suddenly, those players might be forced to take big shots when Harden draws double-teams, and Westbrook’s work on the glass must also be replaced.
“We all know how much he means to us,” said Harden. “We feel confident we can get production from others until he gets back.”
No matter where the series stands, once he heals they’ll obviously welcome him back. Westbrook came into the restart riding his finest stretch with the Rockets, averaging 30 points, eight rebounds and seven assists between January through March.
Meanwhile, the Pacers are also playing without a crucial starter; Domantas Sabonis left Orlando shortly after he arrived to treat plantar fasciitis and is out. Much like Sixers-Celtics, the Pacers’ matchup with the Heat was evenly-matched before his injury. Without him, and after Victor Oladipo was lost midway through the game with an eye injury, the Pacers had few late-game options against Jimmy Butler and Miami and lost as a result.
Then again, the Magic shocked the top-seeded Bucks with Aaron Gordon out with a sore hamstring and Jonathan Isaac done for the playoffs following knee surgery.
For the short-term, Orlando managed quite well. Yet the playoffs are a marathon, even on a neutral floor, and the journey seems even longer for teams with major missing pieces.
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.