Three takeaways from 76ers putting the Celtics on the brink of elimination
If you squint really hard, you can see optimism for the Celtics. They were down 3-2 in the conference semi-finals last season and had to go into Milwaukee and win Game 6, which they did and then won Game 7 of that series, eventually advancing on to the NBA Finals. Plus there is the Doc Rivers curse: His teams have dropped seven straight games where a win would have sent them to the conference finals.
This feels different, however.
Especially after the Celtics game out flat at home in a critical Game 5 Tuesday night, laying an egg against a 76ers team where the MVP looks better and better each game. Philadelphia took Game 5 115-103 (it wasn’t that close) and now leads the series 3-2 heading home for Game 6 on Thursday.
Here are three takeaways from that game.
1) Give the 76ers credit: Embiid, Harden, Maxey owned this game
The temptation is to focus on Boston’s flaws — and we will get to those — but give the Philadelphia 76ers credit for rising to the moment.
The 76ers starters dominated the first half (scoring 52 of Philly’s 58 points) by leaning into the James Harden/Joel Embiid two-man game early. Harden hit some shots but returned more to his role as facilitator, while Embiid put up 21 in the first half and couldn’t seem to miss.
However, more than the points, it was hustle plays like this — sprinting end-to-end on a sprained knee for a chase-down block — that defined his MVP-worthy performance and sparked the team.
Harden continues to have his best playoff series (at least in recent memory), as he has a feel for what the team needs and gives it to them. That was 17 points, 10 assists, and the occasional 3.
Tyrese Maxey took advantage of the space the Harden/Embiid two-man game gave him early, with 11 first quarter points on his way to 30 points, including 6-of-12 from 3.
Then there were the 10 points from Danuel House off the bench in a strong outing.
“He was fantastic tonight, but everyone who played was fantastic,” Rivers said of House. That summed up the entire team.
2) Boston comes out flat, plays without force, cannot flip switch
Marcus Smart was asked postgame what went wrong.
That pretty much sums it up. After they were beaten in the Finals last season, the Celtics talked about lessons learned. That continued through training camp and the first part of the season.
Those lessons have not stuck.
Boston came out and played Game 5 at home like it was a November game in Orlando — there was no urgency. The Celtics were flat, did not defend with physicality or effort early, let Embiid and the 76ers get comfortable, and by the early second quarter Boston was down 15 and couldn’t make up the ground. It has been that way all season with the Celtics, who play like a team with a couple of rings and can flip the switch.
At this point, I’m not sure the Celtics know where the switch is. Not playing with force left them at the mercy of their 3-pointers falling to stay in the game, and Boston was 12-38 (31.6%) from deep in this game. That has been the story of the Joe Mazzulla Celtics, he wanted more 3-pointers but the result has been a team that lives and dies by them falling, not them driving and creating with all that talent on the roster.
Jayson Tatum put up counting stats — scoring a game-high 36 with 10 rebounds — but he was part of the problem early. Tatum was passive to start and shot 0-of-5 in the first quarter — it felt like he was trying to ease into the game but the Celtics were down 15 by the time he found any groove.
3) Celtics’ role players were no shows
When Boston made last year’s run to the Finals, their role players showed up — Marcus Smart looked like a DPOY, Al Horford had big scoring games and in the box score, Grant Williams stepped with 27 against the Bucks in Game 7.
They were not there when the Celtics needed them Tuesday. None of the role players were. Remove Tatum and Brown from the equation and the Celtics shot 30.7% overall and were 6-of-21 (28.6%) from 3. The only other Celtic in double-digits scoring was Smart with 14, but he, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon combined to shoot 31.8%. Horford went scoreless.
It’s obvious, but that can’t happen again in Game 6 if Boston wants to see a Game 7.
Boston needs to play faster next game. They need a lot of things, but it all starts with a sense of urgency. For four quarters.