The Boston Celtics have been overcoming adversity all season long. They lost Gordon Hayward to a fractured tibia on opening night, lost both Kyrie Irving and reserve big man Daniel Theis to knee surgery a month before the playoffs, lost Marcus Smart for five weeks to a thumb injury (that he’s still playing with), and lost Jaylen Brown for the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinals with a hamstring strain … and they’ve just kept rolling. What, you thought a 22-point deficit was going to stop them?
Rookie Jayson Tatum scored 21 points, point guard Terry Rozier continued his remarkable run in Irving’s place with 20 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, All-Star center Al Horford kept his brilliant postseason going and the Celtics exploded out of a first-half hole to earn a 108-103 win to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 3 tips off in Philadelphia on Saturday evening.
Six players scored in double figures for the Celtics, who followed up their lights-out shooting in Game 1 with another bombs-away performance, going 15-for-36 from the 3-point arc. Five of those 15 makes came during a hellacious 25-8 Boston run to close the first half, chopping a 22-point Philly lead all the way down to two possessions entering the third quarter to get the fans at TD Garden in full throat and leave a young 76ers team scrambling to try to regain its composure.
J.J. Redick led the way for Philly in defeat, scoring 23 points on 9-for-17 shooting, including a 5-for-9 mark from 3-point land. Robert Covington (22 points on 15 shots, 4-for-7 from deep) heated up after a frigid Game 1, as the Sixers got their long-range game going to the tune of 13-for-33 shooting as a team. But bouts of poor shot selection and sloppy passing fueled the Celtics’ transition game, kickstarting a Boston offense that hadn’t gotten revved up generating offense in the half-court. And the bright young things that led Philadelphia to 52 wins in this roaring season both struggled to hold up their ends of the bargain, mitigating the elite talent advantage that led many to peg the Sixers as favorite to make the Eastern Conference finals.
All-Star center Joel Embiid posted a strong stat line, finishing with 20 points (albeit on 8-for-22 shooting), 14 rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block. But the paint-patrolling dominance he displayed early in the game as Philly built its lead waned as he battled through foul trouble in the second half, and especially late in the fourth quarter, with the game in the balance.
Embiid also continued to have a hard time finding a defensive comfort zone when guarding Horford at center in space, a matchup that figured to be one of the defining elements of this series. The veteran’s bona fides as a 3-point shooter keep pulling the Sixers phenom out of the paint on defense, opening driving lanes for Boston’s ball-handlers and removing one of the sport’s top interior deterrents from the restricted area. The 76ers were outscored by eight points in Embiid’s 37 minutes; the Celtics were a +21 in 37 minutes with Horford (13 points on 5-for-9 shooting, 12 rebounds, five assists) on the floor.
"I think their speed, at times, does bother us," says Brett Brown. He singles out the matchup of Al Horford vs. Joel Embiid as a serious problem for Philadelphia.
— Marc D'Amico (@Marc_DAmico) May 4, 2018
But Embiid’s failing paled in comparison to those of Rookie of the Year hopeful point guard Ben Simmons, who followed a fairly quiet Game 1 with absolutely deafening silence in Game 2.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens’ game plan of guarding Simmons largely with Horford in the half-court and building a wall around the paint at every turn has essentially neutralized the rim-attacking prowess of the 6-foot-10, 240-pound point guard. Faced with the adversity of a Boston team that continues to force him to try to do things that he’s not comfortable doing — namely, to shoot rather than pass, and more specifically, to shoot from anywhere outside of arm’s reach of the rim (and, increasingly, even there) — the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA draft seemed to disengage.
Ben Simmons on his offensive struggles: “Mentally, I was thinking too much, overthinking the plays, and I wasn’t just out there flowing and playing the way I play, which is free.”
— Boston.com Celtics News (@BDCCeltics) May 4, 2018
Simmons attempted only four shots from the field in Game 2, missing all of them, and most of them badly. He took some shine off his seven assists with five turnovers. He managed only a single point — one free throw — in 31 minutes of floor time, during which the Sixers were outscored by 23 points, the worst mark in the game.
Yes, single-game plus-minus can be an awfully noisy number. But sometimes, it can also tell an awfully compelling story.
The Sixers came out intent on flipping the script after their Game 1 misfires. Redick and Marco Belinelli opened the game red-hot, racing around off the ball to find openings then catching and shooting in rhythm. Redick made his first five shots, while Belinelli went 3-for-6 off the bench, as Philly made one fewer 3-pointer in the first 12 minutes (4-for-6) than in all of Game 1 (5-for-26).
That hot shooting, combined with stifling perimeter defense triggered by a simple matchup switch — Simmons guarding Rozier rather than Smart, Covington guarding Tatum rather than Rozier, and Redick guarding Smart rather than Tatum, putting the Sixers’ two best perimeter defenders on Boston’s two best individual scorers — paced Philly to a 31-22 lead after the first quarter.
The second quarter opened with more of the same, as the presence of Embiid continued to keep Boston out of the paint and Philadelphia’s dogged offensive rebounding ensured that even missed shots became opportunities to extend possessions, physically overwhelming the shell-shocked C’s. A Covington 3-pointer with 6:41 to go in the quarter capped a 17-4 run that gave the Sixers a 22-point lead at 48-26, making it seem like the rout might be on.
But then, these are Brad Stevens’ Celtics. It wasn’t going to be that easy.
The frontcourt of Horford and reserve big man Greg Monroe, who has played sparingly of late, helped settle Boston down, taking care of the boards, grabbing some easy buckets and making life more difficult for the Sixers. Philly responded poorly to the pressure, taking some ill-advised shots and making sloppy passes on which Boston began to pounce, pushing in transition and off turnovers to generate the kind of high-quality looks they weren’t getting against Philly’s set half-court offense.
The three-guard lineup of Rozier, Smart (19 points, 6-for-13 shooting, 4-for-10 from 3, five rebounds, three assists, two steals) and the returning Jaylen Brown (13 points and four rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench) got cranked up in a hurry, combining for 19 points as Boston ripped off a 25-8 run to close the second quarter. An alley-oop dunk by Brown off a feed from Marcus Morris sent TD Garden into hysterics, and sent the C’s into halftime down only five, at 56-51.
Boston would keep pouring it on after intermission. Smart, one of the league’s worst high-volume 3-point shooters — and one playing with a heavily wrapped right hand to protect that injured thumb — kept firing away, and knocked in another triple a minute into the quarter. Tatum and Rozier attacked their way to points, and with 8:52 to go — less than 10 minutes of game-time after the Sixers led by 22 — the two teams were knotted at 58.
That wasn’t enough for the Celtics, who continued to push a listless-looking Sixers side and take advantage of their end of the Horford-Embiid matchup to continue putting pressure on the rim. The most emphatic example? Tatum’s dusting of Covington in the right corner before driving baseline into an Embiid-free lane for a thunderous throwdown that put Boston up 76-68 with 2:24 to go in the third, capping a 50-20 Celtics run:
The Sixers would steal a couple of points back late in the frame, but Tatum’s 10-point third quarter and continued aggressive defensive work kept Philly in trail position, as Boston led 79-75 entering the final 12 minutes.
With Simmons on the bench to start the period, Philly made a run behind some spirited and smart play from T.J. McConnell. The backup point guard cut into the paint for one layup, pushed the pace in transition for another and got an offensive rebound leading to a Covington 3-pointer that gave the Sixers back the lead, 91-88, with just over seven minutes to go.
Philly led by two with 5:29 on the clock when head coach Brett Brown chose to sit McConnell (eight points on 4-for-4 shooting, five assists, two steals) and reserve big man Ersan Ilyasova (four points, six boards) in favor of bringing Simmons and Embid back into the game. These are, after all, minutes that the current and future cornerstones of your franchise need to play to prepare for what everyone in Philadelphia expects to be a bright postseason future. But Simmons couldn’t shake his game-long malaise, and Embiid picked up his fifth foul a half-minute later while guarding Horford on a drive from the perimeter, sending the Celtics linchpin to the line for a pair of free throws to tie the game and tilting the matchup in Boston’s favor down the stretch.
With Embiid needing to be outside guarding Horford, Philly’s best rebounder isn’t in the paint to corral a missed 3 by Smart, leading to a Celtics offensive rebound. When Embiid’s mixed up trying to figure out who he’s supposed to defend after the rebound, Morris gets a wide-open 3 to put Boston back on top.
When Embiid has to close out hard on a Horford catch at the arc, he both leaves himself susceptible to being blown by — which Horford does — and leaves the paint open, forcing a defender to rotate over, leaving Rozier wide open in the corner. Horford hits the open man, and Boston’s back up four. And when Embiid doesn’t want to play too aggressively and pick up his sixth foul, he leaves the door open for driving layups, like the one Rozier hit with just under three minutes to go and the one Horford finished with eight seconds left, closing the door on the comeback effort.
That fourth-quarter finish provided a fitting end to what came before. The Sixers pushed and Boston pushed right back, ending the game on a 15-8 run to close it out, protect home court, and head to Philly needing just two more wins to earn a second straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
It’s a trip everyone expected them to make when they swung their summertime deals for Hayward and Irving, but that few figured they’d pull off once the postseason tipped off. That’s exactly where they’ll be, though, unless the Sixers can turn things around in a hurry back on their home floor and show they’re capable of putting together a 48-minute game against a Celtics team that doesn’t seem at all concerned about who it’s missing … or, for that’s matter, who it’s facing.
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