So this is unexpected—the whole Boston Celtics 2-0 lead in a playoff series in which they were widely disfavored once their matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers was confirmed. I remain unsure of this lead’s integrity. We shall see.
Well that was a thing. I certainly thought the Celtics could win, but I didn’t think they would based on simple probabilities when a second-round series switches location. These two longtime rivals went on dueling runs throughout the game and played tough defense throughout, but the poised indomitable character of the Celtics and the leadership of Al Horford pushed them to an overtime 101-98 win.
THE GAME FLOW
No one should be surprised to learn that Philly came out shooting in this contest, with Joel Embiid getting baskets quick, including one post-up smackdown on Aron Baynes. Boston, by contrast, was a bit clunky on offense to start, but got into rhythm after a few minutes largely due to Jayson Tatum. After that the Sixers lost control of their initial blitz as the Celtics pushed them out to the perimeter and forced Ben Simmons, Robert Covington and J.J. Redick to chuck. All good early signs.
Ben Simmons will not f***ing shoot. If anything truly undoes the Sixers in this series, it’ll almost certainly be the opportunities for the Celtics that such a refusal creates. If he can’t drive to the rim, and can’t pass due to defenders locking up dudes along the three-point arc, he freezes like a computer program caught in mid-operation by a virus.
But Philly also has Embiid, who the Celtics are’t underestimating despite to some extent letting him do what he wants. (This is, of course, deliberate, up to a point.) He made shots when no one else could, and then resident old-man Sixers Redick and Marco Belinelli finally started hitting shots to fuel a 12-point run and establish a small 20-19 lead at the quarter’s end.
Brad Stevens spoke on the importance of keeping Philly away from transition plays and forcing them to execute offensively in half-court sets, which is not their preferred mode. They did this in the first half of Q2 with defensive pressure that held the Sixers to 27 percent shooting, and through scoring from semi-unexpected (perhaps “uneven” is a better descriptor) places—Baynes, Mook Morris and Marcus Smart. Boston rebuilt its lead and then some after that. Only Horford was curiously scoreless for the first half (which, given the game’s final result, is irrelevant).
Most of the second frame played itself out as back-and-forth runs. The Celtics would get hot and the Sixers often had an answer. Fortunately for our heroes, they established enough of a lead in their early-quarter run that it remained in place…at least, until a series of offensively successful Philly transition plays and resultant 13-0 run, highlighted by a thunderous Embiid slam dunk.
This was, uh, suboptimal to say the least, with the Sixers pulling ahead for their first substantive (seven-point) lead of the game. But the Celtics punched back with a series of threes and foul shots to cut it to three, 51-48 Sixers at the halftime buzzer.
The battle remained a close one after play resumed. Boston retied the score when Horford scored his first bucket of the game, regained a lead not long after off a smooth Terry Rozier corner trey. Philly held the hell up due to a surge of confidence and strong play from Simmons—even a successful jump shot! Surprisingly, it was Embiid who began to seem somewhat hesitant, making mistakes such as an underestimation of Horford’s defense and some pouty braying over referee calls.
Scary Terry was the difference-maker in this third quarter more than anything else. He had barely any points in the first half and then out of frackin’ nowhere had 16. He made basically any Sixers player assigned to defend him look like some AAU newbie. Only a last-minute furious run by Philly (and even more so, a long scoreless stretch by both teams) brought the home team close within, but Boston maintained a narrow (but nice) 69-68 lead with three quarters of the contest in the books.
Tensions were high at the top of the fourth. A squabble between Embiid and Baynes after a foul by the latter got the chippiness rolling, though it ultimately fizzled out, and Embiid’s later attempt to get a foul by Smart called against Baynes didn’t succeed. From there, the gameplay revolved back to the bucket-trading that had characterized so much of the third. At the exact halfway point of the quarter, we were knotted at 81.
Despite Boston missing what felt like a gazillion threes, the game remained tied up in attrition offense. Tatum got a drive, then blew his foul shots. Rozier got a layup, then Embiid got another brutal dunk, in mad-online revenge for an earlier block Horford hit him with. (Side note: Are the Sixers the most mad online team of all time? Their fanbase may be.)
OH JESUS WE’RE TIED AGAIN WITH A MINUTE LEFT—wait, no, noted sexual deviant and horrible defender Marco Belinelli drew a bulls**t foul and regained the lead with two free throws. 87-85 Philly. Then Jaylen Brown got consecutive layups off of turnovers and SOMEHOW TOOK THE LEAD, only to have known Silvio Berlusconi voter Belinelli made a miracle three and everything sucks and is bad EXCEPT WAIT NO IT’S A TWO AND WE GOIN TO OVERTIME.
(In case you haven’t noticed, applying order to any descriptions of this game seems inappropriate, so LET THE WEIRDNESS FLOW.)
So now Philadelphia fans got to see what they really wanted: white people making jump shots. (Do not even consider @-ing me about this. Y’all loved seeing T.J. McConnell get paid $55 million to be a wholly average backup. Some of y’all defended Riley Cooper. Y’all got just as much nasty baggage as Boston.) In any event, Redick and confirmed Mussolini fetishist Belinelli made a bunch of shots and pulled ahead of the Cs, albeit not far ahead. Despite some woes at the free-throw line, though, Tatum kept Boston in the game, down 98-96. Then a turnover gave the Celtics the ball back and Horford drove for a foul, but only made one of his free throws.
A maelstrom of missed shots at the rim for the Sixers kept them from sealing a victory despite Embiid and Simmons attempting some of those shots. Stevens called a timeout for the Celtics and then another when Mook Morris couldn’t inbound over Embiid. Horford jab-stepped his way past Covington after a poor defensive switch put B-Cov in front of Uncle Al, and got a layup just barely in the basket, but it fell, and that’s what counts, putting the Cs up 99-98.
Five seconds left. Simmons inbounded the ball to Embiid, who sloppily held the rock under Horford’s coverage—and then lost it on what felt like the first swipe by Al, who got it back up the court, drew another foul, and nailed his free throws to extend the lead to 101-98. Belinelli got the ball again at the last second because Brett Brown does not know how to call plays, and he couldn’t repeat his OT-sealing shot. Against pretty much almost all odds, Boston took a 3-0 lead in the series.
HOT ISH: In a game where he didn’t contribute as much raw offense as other occasions, Horford nonetheless kept the ship afloat when it showed the most signs of sinking. Brown looked more comfortable and more recovered from his hamstring issue, and shot well from deep. Last but not least, Tatum had 24-5-4 with a steal and a game-high +24, foul shot misses be damned.
NOT ISH: Those free-throw misses could have done a lot more damage, and fortunately did not. Also, some of the cold stretches of Boston offense only by random chance didn’t derail the team entirely.
ESPERA EL OTRO.
TEAMWORK, DREAM WORK, ETC:
Low-key but still awesome Tatum slam: