After coasting through most of their victory in Game 1, the Celtics (55-27) nonchalantly shook off a double-digit deficit and roared by the 76ers on Thursday night, recording a 108-103 victory to improve to 6-0 in Boston this postseason.
Rookie Jayson Tatum scored 21 points, Terry Rozier added 20 and Marcus Smart added 19 as Boston’s rally from 22 down in the second quarter was their largest postseason comeback since overcoming a 24-point deficit to win Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals.
Jaylen Brown, who sat out Game 1 with a strained hamstring, came off the bench Thursday night to contribute 13 points in 25 minutes as he made five of 12 shots. Boston were again proficient from 3-point range, hitting 15 of 36 after knocking down 17 of 35 in the series opener.
J. J. Redick scored 23 points and Joel Embiid added 20 and 14 rebounds to pace Philadelphia, but rookie Ben Simmons, the linchpin of their offense, had just one point and seven assists with five turnovers as the Celtics have decided the best way to slow down the 76ers up-tempo offense is by sending multiple defenders at the 6′ 10″ point guard.
Philadelphia were much improved from beyond the arc in Game 2, hitting 13 of 33 in Thursday’s loss as Redick and Robert Covington were a combined nine for 16. Despite squandering that enormous first-half lead, the 76ers regrouped and still led 93-88 with 5:48 to play before being outscored 20-10 down the stretch.
The series will remain in Philadelphia for Game 4 on Monday night.
Three keys to the game
Boston is in Simmons' head - The Celtics have opted for defense by committee on the rookie point guard, with Smart, Al Horford, Marcus Morris and Semi Ojeleye all taking turns on the 76ers star. Smart has the quickness and Horford has the nous while Morris relies on physical play to make sure Simmons does not get the ball in the paint in dangerous positions where he can score given his inconsistent jump shot.
“I think it was mainly what I did to myself,” Simmons told philly.com. “I think mentally, I was just thinking too much, over-thinking the plays, and wasn’t just out there flowing and playing the way I play, which is free.”
Brett Brown not immune from second-guessing - Praised all season long for overseeing "The Process" and guiding these young 76ers to their first playoff appearance in six years, Brown came under scrutiny for a pair of decisions in Game 2 that can be argued altered the outcome of the game.
The first was opting not to burn a timeout in the second quarter as the Celtics rapidly chopped away at that 22-point deficit, which went from 20 to 5 in the final 3:54 of the half. The second came with the decision to put Simmons back in the game for the final 5:29 despite getting effective play from reserve T. J. McConnell.
Regarding the timeouts, Brown said, "If I had to do it again, I’d do the same thing." He seemed more willing to accept the second-guessing regarding Simmons, who was a minus-16 in his 25 minutes leading up to that point when he re-entered the game with the 76ers up 93-91 and finished a minus-23.
“It’s a tough decision. I admit it. This whole playoff experience is something that I want our young guys, our star players, to learn from, and grow,” Brown said. “I’m coming back to Ben Simmons. I think he’s going to have to learn how to play in these environments.”
History is on Boston's side - Throughout Boston's storied playoff history, being up 2-0 in a series has proven to be a done deal. The Celtics have never blown a 2-0 lead in franchise history, winning all 36 previous best-of-seven series. To further pile on, the 76ers are 0-11 after losing the first two games of a playoff series.
Matchup to watch
PG Ben Simmons vs F Al Horford, G Marcus Smart, and F Marcus Morris - If there was an easy way to get Simmons going, Brett Brown would have figured it out by now. But the problem is Simmons cannot hit a shot outside 18 feet, or arguably even 15 feet, so the challenge is where can Brown put him in the half-court off the ball where he can also start the offense.
The other option is to make sure Simmons brings the ball up every possession, which is admittedly unfeasible and also potentially counterproductive because Smart would probably be giddy at the chance to get right up on Simmons 94 feet at a time.
The one wrinkle Brown could attempt is to put Simmons and Embiid in a two-man game on the wing in which Simmons starts the play on the sideline and gives Embiid the entry pass above the low block since the Celtics are guarding both players 1-on-1.
This would allow Embiid to either turn baseline with a drop step, face up for a 12-footer or use his court vision to find a shooter with an opposite 45-degree pass or a straight-line pass to the opposite wing at the foul-line extended.
Boston Celtics projected starting lineup
PG - Marcus Smart | SG - Terry Rozier | C - Aron Baynes | SF - Jayson Tatum | PF - Al Horford
Philadelphia 76ers projected starting lineup
PG - Ben Simmons | SG - J. J. Redick | C - Joel Embiid | SF - Robert Covington | PF - Dario Saric
Tatum is developing into a can't-ignore option at small forward or utility spot behind LeBron James for DFS purposes as he followed up his 28-point effort in Game 1 with another 21 on Thursday night. He has four consecutive 20-point games and has averaged 17.4 points in his first postseason.
Rozier continues to be a scourge from beyond the arc, and his 3-point percentage in the playoffs at 43.8 percent is now just off his overall mark of 44.1 percent as he has made 20 of 38 from deep over his last four games. But the other impressive aspect of his game is how Rozier is quietly racking up assists in an offense that is more a collective than reliant on any individual player.
He had nine assists without a turnover in Game 2, raising his assists-to-turnover ratio to 4.77 in the postseason. Rozier has committed just 13 turnovers in Boston's nine playoff games, with five coming in that disastrous Game 3 loss in Milwaukee.
With the Celtics committing to 1-on-1 coverage with Embiid, that makes the 76ers center a strong play for DFS. He has recorded four straight double-doubles, averaging 21.0 points and 12.8 rebounds in that streak, but Philadelphia will look for him to be more aggressive in the paint since he has totaled 17 free throws in his last three games after starting the postseason going 20 for 28 from the foul line in his first two contests.
Redick continues to have a solid postseason and scored at least 20 points for the fourth consecutive game. He has gone 14 for 35 from 3-point range in that span, and his 47.9 percent overall shooting is a playoff career high. Redick will continue to get his shots as Philadelphia's top perimeter option, which also makes him a low-cost and flexible pick for DFS.
Even being in an 0-2 hole, the 76ers are surprisingly nine-point favorites for this game despite the Celtics covering in five of the last six overall meetings between the teams and in six of their last eight visits to Philadelphia. The underdogs have delivered in eight of the last ten matchups.
The 76ers have covered just once in their last five second-round playoff games, but they are 5-0 versus the number in their last five Saturday games. Philadelphia are 15-6 against the spread in their last 21 games overall and 21-7 in their last 28 at home. They are also 6-2-1 against the spread in their last nine following a straight up loss and 21-8 in their last 29 at home against teams with a winning percentage on the road.
Boston have covered in their last five conference semifinal games and 5-1 against the spread in their last six versus Atlantic Division teams and Eastern Conference opponents. They are also 21-8 against the number in their last 29 games overall and 19-7 in their last 26 road contests when facing teams with a home winning percentage above .600.
The over/under has dipped two points to 206, which makes the over a more tempting play considering it has hit in eight of the last 11 games between the teams and in four of the last five in Philadelphia. The over is also 13-3 in Boston's last 16 games and 5-1 in their last six against Atlantic Division teams.
The over has also posted an 8-3 mark in Philadelphia's last 11 games versus above-.500 teams and Eastern Conference rivals.
Besides Celtics coach Brad Stevens making the decision that Simmons will not be the 76er who beats Boston, the primary takeaway from the two wins by his team is that even with the Celtics being on their sixth and seventh players in the rotation in the starting lineup and not at full strength is that their team is greater than the sum of their parts.
The opposite has held true for the 76ers, who are getting good performances from certain players without having the mesh into a consistent rhythm offensively. On the surface, Dario Saric is right around his season averages after totaling 26 points and 16 rebounds in the first two games, but nothing about his game has stood out.
Robert Covington finally had his first breakout game of these playoffs with 22 points, but he had totaled 23 in his previous three games combined. It is not reasonable to expect him to score another 22, even at home.
Compare that with the connectivity of the Celtics on both ends of the court. Horford and Smart have had solid all-around efforts while guarding Simmons, and Rozier is punishing Covington, who is struggling with staying in front of the Celtics guard because putting Simmons on him would be an even worse matchup. Every single decision Stevens has presented to his players in this series has resulted in making Boston the better team through two games.
The one area that will be a concern for the Celtics in this game will be their 3-point shooting. They have been lights out at home, connecting on 40.5 percent of their attempts while making 12.5 per contest in their six wins. In the three first-round losses at Milwaukee, they were awful from beyond the arc, hitting just 31.5 percent while averaging 9.3 makes.
The 76ers will come out swinging in this game, and a meaningful home game against the Celtics will bring out the full "Philly" crowd, which means a raucous and vibrant atmosphere, keyed by rapper Meek Mill and actor Kevin Hart.
Brown does not have to work on what the 76ers are doing as much as positively reinforcing his players for this game. They are getting good shots, but the lapses they have had when shots are not falling have absolutely killed them. After those two games in Boston, it's easy to doubt Philadelphia and say this could be a "gentleman's sweep" in which the Celtics drop Game 3 and advance in five, but Stevens' team is not there yet.
Philadelphia, though, will cut into that 2-0 series deficit with a 113-104 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on ESPN and nationally in Canada on SportsNet One. Tip-off time is 5 pm EDT.
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