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Three takeaways from Smart, late arriving Tatum saving Celtics’ season, forcing Game 7 vs. 76ers

For three quarters, the Boston Celtics didn’t look like a team that deserved a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Their stars were struggling, their play was sloppy, and their offense looked like a team feeling the pressure.

However, the 76ers never put them away and it came back to bite the home team as Jayson Tatum scored 16 in the fourth and Boston roared back to a 95-86 win. That evens the series at 3-3 and forces a Game 7 on Sunday.

Here are three takeaways from a wild Game 6.

1) Marcus Smart saved Boston’s season

Jayson Tatum becoming the embodiment of The Undertaker sitting up gif will get headlines, but Marcus Smart and the Celtics’ role players kept the team in touch and gave them a chance late.

For three quarters this felt more like a “what is wrong with Tatum in the playoffs?” game — he was 0-of-10 shooting in the first half. However, maybe the best sign of just how much Tatum struggled came in the third quarter when he isolated on George Niang — a guy with the nickname “mini-van” — and couldn’t drive past him. Jaylen Brown was doing better but not overwhelming, and Boston’s offense was never on track (the Celtics had a 100 offensive rating for the game — an even point per possession).

However, Marcus Smart, Malcolm Brogdon and Derrick White shot 8-of-11 from 3 in the first half to spark Boston to a seven-point halftime lead. Boston’s hot start from 3 defined the first half, even if it felt like a bit of a mirage at the time.

Smart finished with 22 points, seven rebounds and assists on the night, plus some key defensive plays.

The other guy stepping up was Robert Williams, who was put into the starting lineup (in place of White) and played well, moving better than we have seen all playoffs. Last season the Celtics leaned heavily into the “two bigs” lineups of Al Horford and Williams, but Joe Mazzulla has moved away from that more through the season. He went back to it in Game 6 and it worked.

Williams finished with 10 points and nine rebounds, but his impressive defense showed up in his team-best +18 on the night.

Brogdon finished with 16 points off the bench. Brown finished with 17.

2) Then Jayson Tatum woke up

Shooters always believe the next shot is going to drop.

For three quarters he was a mess: Tatum shot 1-of-13 overall, including 0-of-6 from 3, through the first 36 minutes of the game. It was ugly, but it followed some rough first halves in recent games (he has shot a combierd 4-of-30 in the first half of the last three games).

Then early in the fourth Tatum drew a couple of fouls and got to the free throw line, got a rhythm, and found his confidence — he shot 4-of-5 from 3 in the quarter and finished with 16 points.

Tatum finished the game with 19 points, second most on the team (behind Smart). He started knocking down shots and the Celtics pulled away in the final five minutes.

3) Philly is going to regret letting this game get away

Up 3-2 with a chance to close out. At home. The Celtics’ best player can’t throw a pea in the ocean for three quarters.

This was a game for the taking. A chance to advance to the conference finals. Philadelphia did not grab it. They fell behind early as the Celtics’ role players stepped up, and while Philly’s defense was generally good their offense was unimpressive all night and a disaster in the clutch — the 76ers scored one point in the competitive part of the final 5:50 of the game. How does a team with the MVP score one point in the clutch of a closeout game?

The Sixers finished a 90.5 offensive rating for the game, and their transition defense was a mess. While Boston didn’t get out and run that much (16.8% of their possessions, not far off the league average) they had an offensive rating of 137.5 on those plays. In a game where the Celtics struggled to generate good half-court offense, their transition game won the day.

Joel Embiid put up quality numbers with 26 points and 10 rebounds, and Tyrese Maxey added 26 as well. James Harden was not efficient scoring — 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting — but added nine assists and seven rebounds. However, there wasn’t much balance and there wasn’t much of anything when it mattered.

Now they need to find something for Game 7.