(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Bill Streicher)
Boston (55-27) pushed Philadelphia to the brink of elimination with a 101-98 overtime victory on the road in Game 3 Saturday. Al Horford scored the go-ahead basket with 5.5 seconds to play and sealed the victory with a pair of free throws as the Celtics took advantage of the 76ers’ inexperience in crunch time during both the end of regulation and the extra period.
Rookie Jayson Tatum scored 24 points, Terry Rozier added 18 and Jaylen Brown netted 16 off the bench for Boston, who are seeking their first sweep since taking out the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2011 postseason and their first sweep after the first round since blowing by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1987 conference finals en route to the title that season.
The loss overshadowed a monstrous effort by Joel Embiid, who had 22 points and 19 rebounds, and a strong bounce-back game from rookie Ben Simmons as he added 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists. The 76ers (52-30), though, again struggled from 3-point range as they made just nine of 30 shots from deep and have connected at a 30.3 percent clip (27 for 89) in this series.
History is clearly against the 76ers since no NBA team have ever rallied from three games down to win a best-of-seven series in playoff history. Philadelphia have not been swept since Indiana knocked them out of the 1999 Eastern Conference semifinals.
Should the 76ers win to extend this series, Game 5 will be Wednesday night at Boston.
Three keys to the game
A moment of admiration for Brad Stevens - One area a coach makes an imprint on an individual game is with "ATO plays," or plays that come after a timeout. Despite being in the league just five seasons, Stevens is widely considered one of the league's best in this area, and that was on display on Horford's game-winning basket.
His ability to diagram the play in which he "lifted the floor" and had three players take their defenders above the foul line to leave Horford isolated in the paint against undersized Robert Covington for the game-winning layup was the latest example.
"Brad is a genius, man," Horford told ESPN right after the game ended. "Sometimes he draws stuff up, and I look at it, I'm like (confused). But Marcus delivered it, great pass, I missed some shots that I normally make there, but I made that one, so it was good."
And Boston would not even have been in that position had Stevens failed to draw up another play in the final minute of regulation that resulted in Brown getting a wide-open layup that tied the game at 87 with 24 seconds to play.
And some painful learning lessons for Philadelphia - There have been moments throughout this series where the 76ers have been, to borrow a European football term, irresistible. However, there have also been times they have looked painfully naïve, and never more so than Saturday.
From Simmons blowing a wide-open dunk in the final minute of regulation to his cross-up in communication with J. J. Redick that resulted in what was almost the game-winning basket for Boston in the final seconds of regulation to his lazy inbounds pass intended for Embiid that Horford stole in the closing seconds of overtime that prevented Philadelphia from even attempting a potential game-winning shot, the Game 3 loss again proved the old adage that "young teams find ways to lose games."
“Joel’s going to learn a lot,” 76ers coach Brett Brown told The New York Times. “Ben’s going to learn a lot. It’s painful admitting that now, but there’s a lot of truth to that.”
Terrific Tatum - One of the under-reported sidebars of this series has been the yawning chasm in contributions between Tatum, the third overall pick in the draft, and No. 1 overall selection Markelle Fultz, especially considering the Sixers swapped spots with the Celtics to move up and select Fultz.
While Fultz has watched from the bench after logging just 22 minutes in the first three games of Philadelphia's first-round series against Miami, Tatum has become the breakout player of this postseason. After Saturday's performance, he eclipsed Larry Legend (a.k.a. Larry Bird) with his fifth consecutive 20-point playoff game as a rookie and had two key baskets on drives in overtime to pull the Celtics back within one possession after Philadelphia had opened four-point leads.
Tatum is 26 for 47 in this series while averaging 24.3 points and 2.3 assists. While his free throw shooting was spotty late, there is little doubt he has thrived in the spotlight in these playoffs.
Matchup to watch
C Aron Baynes and PF Al Horford vs C Joel Embiid - There have been points in this series where Embiid has done mean things to Boston's defender. Most notably, he threw down two dunks on Baynes in Game 3 that quickly went viral, and a basket late in regulation in which he thundered by Horford on the bounce and threw down a right-handed dunk over him on the left side of the basket.
Horford, though, showed veteran cageyness when matched up with Horford and made him work for everything. The Celtics forward even rejected him twice as part of his three-block effort. Embiid may wind up with big numbers again, but Horford and Baynes are getting the numbers that help contribute to the letter the Celtics want, the "W."
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
While the Celtics are likely to bring Brown off the bench again in Game 4, it should not discourage DFS players from considering him as a utility player. He has totaled 29 points and 13 rebounds while hitting 11 of 24 shots in his two games since returning and is five for 11 from beyond the arc.
Rozier finally cooled off from 3-point range in Game 4, hitting just two of eight, but he stayed within himself offensively and made seven of 15 shots. Rozier has averaged 23.3 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.8 assists in his last four games, and even with Saturday's sub-par effort from beyond the arc, he has still made 18 of 34 from deep in that stretch.
Given the pattern of schedule in these playoffs, Embiid continues to be the top option at center for DFS purposes and has averaged 21.2 points and 14.0 rebounds while recording double-doubles in five straight postseason games. Expect more of the same as the 76ers look to stave off elimination.
It is difficult to tell which way Simmons will go in this game. His all-around numbers Saturday were solid, but he still has almost as many turnovers (16) as assists (21) in this series. He was clearly more aggressive in getting to the basket, and if the officiating is as loose as it was Saturday when the referees had no problems letting them play, then it will benefit the rookie point guard.
Redick, though, may be the safer play as he finished two points shy of his fifth straight 20-point game and continues to find creases to get jump shots off against the Celtics.
The 76ers are 6.5-point favorites to send this series back to Boston, with the line moving one-half point in their direction since it opened. Philadelphia, though, have failed to cover in their last four second-round playoff games, are 1-6 against the spread in their last seven overall versus Boston and 2-7 in their last nine at home against them.
Despite being 15-7 versus the number in their last 22 overall and 19-7 in their last 26 at home, the 76ers are also 2-5 in their last seven versus divisional rivals and 1-5 in their last six playong on one day of rest.
Boston have now covered in six straight conference semifinal games and are 6-1 against the spread in their last seven against teams with a winning percentage above .600. The Celtics are 18-6 against the spread in their last 24 games against Eastern Conference opponents, 22-8 in their last 30 overall and 37-17 in their last 54 on the road.
The over/under is 204.5 points, with the over trending for Boston as it has gone 11-3 in their last 14 games overall and versus Eastern Conference opponents. The over is also 5-2 in Boston's last seven second-round games and against division foes. The over has delivered four times in Philadelphia's last five following a loss against the spread, but the under is 4-1-1 in their last six Monday games and 8-2-1 in their last 11 on one day of rest.
After an interesting yet only semi-justified rant about how 76ers coach Brett Brown has cost his team all three games in this series, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith made a very salient point about why the Boston Celtics are succeeding in this postseason in that their key players are "multidimensional players."
And that ability to be interchangeable has given Philadelphia fits. Consider how the 76ers again could not really hide Redick defensively against either Tatum, Rozier, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Consider the 76ers were using backup point guard T. J. McConnell for offense/defense substitutions late in regulation Saturday because Covington was also a bad matchup for coverage plans, which was later exposed on the game-winning basket.
Consider how the Celtics rotate multiple players on Simmons and Embiid, how little fall off there is when Horford bodies up to Embiid when Baynes is not in the game. Consider how Shane Larkin knew exactly what his role was after replacing Smart following his sixth foul in the final minute of regulation.
Consider the connectivity of a team who again are using players six and seven in their rotation in their starting lineup due to injuries and were using players eight and nine in overtime of a playoff game on the road with a chance to choke the life out of an opponent.
These are your Boston Celtics.
It is hard not to feel that this is the end for "Trusting the Process" for this season. There is no shame in that for the 76ers, who are a year early in the grand scheme of things and got to this point without any meaningful contributions from Fultz all season. It is uncertain where he fits into the grand scheme of the 76ers offense given Simmons needs the ball to be his transcendent self, but that is something for Brett Brown to figure out in the offseason.
The growing pains have been evident throughout the entire series, how the 76ers have at times simply not valued the ball, how they have not valued every postseason possession and displayed an almost "too cool" approach. That's not accusing Philadelphia of being lazy, it is merely an observation this young team did not know any better until they got punished for each and every transgression they made in such moments.
Perhaps Philadelphia extend this series as pride takes hold, and they send it back to Boston for what will become a "gentleman's sweep" and a five-game series. But it is also hard to see the Celtics letting their guard down enough where the 76ers create so much separation for a blowout victory.
Get the brooms ready, because Boston are moving on after a 99-95 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on TNT and nationally in Canada on TSN2. Tip-off time is 6 pm EDT.
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