Moments after the Boston Celtics completed the franchise’s first playoff sweep of Philadelphia in the longstanding rivalry between these two Eastern Conference powers, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens entered the team locker room with a clear message to his team: We need to be better.
As impressive as the Celtics were in putting away the Sixers in the least amount of time, Stevens was bothered by how his team closed out their 110-106 Game 4 victory.
Boston led by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter and were up 106-92 with about three minutes to play.
That is when the Sixers closed out the game with a 14-4 run capped off by a last-second 3-pointer from Joel Embiid that made the final score a lot closer than the game played actually was in the fourth quarter.
Following the win, the Celtics players discussed candidly the need for them to be better in their overall play, going forward.
Having that sense of needing to improve will bode well for the Celtics as they gear up for their second-round series against the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors as they swept through their first-round series against Brooklyn.
While Boston enjoyed success against Toronto during the regular season (Boston won the head-to-head series 3-1), the Celtics know better than to put too much stock into regular season success.
Look at their series against Philadelphia.
Boston lost three of the four regular season games against Philadelphia but turned around and swept them in the playoffs.
And in Boston’s regular season head-to-head matchups with Toronto, Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam did not play in two of the meetings.
That is in part why the usual jovial demeanor a team might feel after putting a team away in the first round with such ease was not seen in the Celtics after Sunday's game. They are far from being in a happy-happy, joy-joy frame of mind.
“For us, we know we won this series. It’s done with,” said Boston’s Marcus Smart.
And their success against the Sixers has to be put in perspective to fully appreciate why they are not getting too high about moving on to the next round.
While Boston was without Gordon Hayward (ankle) for all but the first game, the Sixers were without Ben Simmons (left knee surgery) for the entire series, which took away their best playmaker as well as their best perimeter defender.
And in Game 4, a game in which the Sixers were seemingly neck-and-neck with the Celtics for most of the day, a head injury to Tobias Harris sent him to the locker room late in the third quarter when it was a one-possession (80-77) game.
By the time Harris returned, the Celtics had a double-digit lead having seized control of the game and in doing so, had little problem wrapping up the victory and the series.
Toronto will be a much more formidable opponent.
The Raptors had the second-best regular season record in the East, led by a dynamic trio of talent in All-Stars Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry, as well as Fred VanVleet with veteran defensive stalwart Marc Gasol manning the middle. Toronto’s bench has a number of players who have stepped in to contribute this season as well, led by Serge Ibaka and Norm Powell.
Toronto head coach Nick Nurse received this year’s NBA Coach of the Year award prior to the Raptors putting away the Nets on Sunday evening to advance to the next round of play to face Boston.
Stevens has spent his entire time in Boston focused on keeping himself and his players in the moment while building a bridge towards future success with high-level planning and preparation.
That’s why he’s not spending much time enjoying the success his team had against the Sixers.
Yes, Stevens and the Celtics are on to Toronto!
“One of the jobs of a coach is to be prepared for what’s ahead,” Stevens said. “But at the end of the day, there’s not a lot of savoring when you are in the middle of it. You end up looking back on things after the seasons are over, careers are over or people move on or whatever; that’s when you enjoy it.”
So you can only imagine what his message was to his team following their series-clinching win on Sunday.
“We have to play better than the last three minutes of the game (4),” Stevens said. “That’s all I care about now.”