(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Winslow Townson)
Boston (55-27) did not have starting shooting guard Jaylen Brown for their Eastern Conference semifinal series opener Monday night due to a strained hamstring, but he was not missed as the Celtics rolled to a 117-101 victory.
Marcus Smart, who did not make his first appearance in the postseason until Game 5 of Boston’s first-round victory over Milwaukee due to a thumb injury, had nine points and nine assists in his first start in these playoffs, but it was the trio of Terry Rozier, Al Horford and rookie Jayson Tatum who more than compensated for Brown as they teamed up for 83 points.
Rozier, who has shined since All-Star guard Kyrie Irving was lost for the season with a knee injury, hit seven of nine from 3-point range and finished with a playoff career-high of 29 points, and the veteran Horford made ten of 12 shots and added 26 to match a postseason career best.
Tatum, the third overall pick, mixed his offensive arsenal and also set a personal playoff standard with 28 points, sinking 11 of 12 from the foul line and going eight of 16 from the field. The Celtics made 17 of 35 from 3-point range and took full advantage of Philadelphia’s mistakes, scoring 23 points off 12 turnovers as they improved to 5-0 at home in the playoffs.
Joel Embiid paced the 76ers with a playoff career high of 31 points and rookie Ben Simmons totaled 18 points, seven rebounds and six assists, but he also committed seven turnovers. Philadelphia failed to deliver from 3-point range, shooting a postseason-low 19.2 percent as they made just five of 26. J. J. Redick was two of seven from beyond the arc while Dario Saric, Robert Covington and Ersan Ilyasova combined to miss all 11 of their tries from deep.
It was just the second loss in 22 games for the 76ers, who closed the regular season with a franchise-record 16-game winning streak before knocking out the Miami Heat in five games in the first round.
The series will shift to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Saturday.
Three keys to the game
Celtics being cautious with Brown - As much as Brown wants to contribute and get back into the playoffs after averaging 17.9 points in the series win over Milwaukee, Celtics coach Brad Stevens has done a good job preaching patience to his second-year guard as he goes through a battery of tests to make sure his hamstring is 100 percent so he does not aggravate the injury and face a prolonged absence.
"The bottom line is, with this hamstring injury, it's not terrible. It's not a long-term thing, it shouldn't linger if he comes back at the right time," Stevens told ESPN. "But you could make it worse if you don't come back at the right time, if you have to guard J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli. And he's going to have to do that so this is a great test to know when you're going to be back or not. Because it's not just about running, it's about running at full speed all the way around the court. So that's a real test."
Embiid rounding back into form - Philadelphia's layoff may have contributed to some rust they had to scrape off in Game 1, but it also allowed Embiid to get back to the strengths of his game, mainly operating at of the low post. After taking just 14 shots from inside five feet in his first three playoff games following the ten he missed with a fractured orbital bone, the 76ers big man went seven of nine on such attempts in Game 1, and that was with his teammates failing to knock down 3-pointers that would have given him more space to operate.
“I thought he was physical,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said of Embiid to the team's official website. “I thought at times he received balls close to the rim and really sort of made an effort to get as close to the basket as he could and he scored. I thought that he had a good game given how limited basketball he’s been playing.”
A Smart disrupter - This space has occasionally decried Smart's shooting discipline or lack thereof, and it was again evident in Game 1 when he made only three of 12 shots. But Smart is not going to win this series for Boston with his offense, it will be with his defense and hustle, and he shined in both areas Monday night. Smart has the unenviable task of trying to slow down Simmons, giving six inches but only ten pounds.
That, coupled with Smart's frenetic defense, prevented Simmons from getting into a comfort zone throughout Game 1. The 76ers rookie committed two live-ball turnovers and two offensive fouls among his seven for the game, a large reason why Boston ruthlessly capitalized on the other end.
Matchup to watch
SG J. J. Redick vs SF Jayson Tatum - Even without the worry of dealing with Brown, the 76ers have a clear matchup problem here because they are trying, and in Game 1, failed to hide Redick defensively. He is not quick enough to stay in front of Rozier, not strong enough to deal with Smart, and Tatum is running him ragged the same way Redick does to defenses coming off screens.
While Tatum is not a lights-out shooter from the perimeter, he went two for nine on shots beyond 14 feet in Game 1, he was able to shake Reddick repeatedly on drives to the basket and made six of seven shots at the rim. 76ers coach Brett Brown may have to make a switch somewhere defensively among his first five to limit the damage this matchup creates.
Philadelphia 76ers projected starting lineup
PG - Ben Simmons | SG - J. J. Redick | C - Joel Embiid | SF - Robert Covington | PF - Dario Saric
Boston Celtics projected starting lineup
PG - Terry Rozier | SG - Marcus Smart | C - Aron Baynes | SF - Jayson Tatum | PF - Al Horford
While Marco Belinelli has scored in double figures off the bench in all six postseason games for Philadelphia, he has averaged just 10.7 points in the last three games while going two for nine from 3-point range after scoring 20.7 per game in the first three contests and making ten of 23 from deep.
Simmons continues to put up gaudy numbers and has averaged 18.2 points, 10.0 rebounds and 8.5 assists while shooting 50.6 percent in the postseason, but he also has 17 turnovers to 22 assists in his last three games after having 29 assists and only ten turnovers in his first three career playoff games.
Tatum has scored 20 or more points in four of his last five games, averaging 19.8 points. He has made 32 of 35 free throws in that stretch to help compensate for shooting 30.4 percent (seven for 23) from beyond the arc.
Rozier has now hit four or more 3-pointers in four of Boston's eight playoff games and has shot 43.8 percent (28 for 64) from beyond the arc while averaging 19.0 points and 6.6 assists. He also has a 4.08 assists-to-turnover ratio, committing two or few turnovers in all but one game.
The 76ers are four-point favorites in their bid to even the series, with the line moving one-half point in their direction since its open as they try to cover for the second time in their last six games between the teams.
Philadelphia are 6-2 against the spread in their last eight games, 12-4 in their last 16 versus Eastern Conference opponents and 15-5 in their last 20 overall. The Sixers are also 6-1-1 against the number in their last eight when coming off a straight up loss.
Boston have covered in their last four second-round playoff games and are 10-1 against the spread in their last 11 home games. They are also 4-1 versus the number in their last five matchups with Atlantic Division teams and Eastern Conference opponents. The Celtics have covered in their last seven home games against opponents with winning road record and are 20-8 against the spread in their last 28 overall.
The over/under is 207 points, and the over hit for the seventh time in the last ten meetings between the teams in Game 1. The over is also 7-3 in the last ten matchups in Boston and 4-1 in Philadelphia's last five road games. It is also 7-3 in Philadelphia's last ten games versus conference rivals and teams with above-.500 records.
The over is also 10-2 in Boston's last 12 overall and last 12 against conference foes. It has also delivered 13 times in their last 16 home games.
For all the talk of how Boston needed to slow the tempo and play a game in the 90s or low 100s to beat Philadelphia, it went out the window fairly quickly with their victory in Game 1. However, there will be some corrections that revert to the norm in Game 2, most notably the 36-point edge the Celtics had in 3-pointers after Rozier alone had more 3-pointers than the 76ers (7-5).
Philadelphia also found out the Celtics have no one who can stop Embiid. Boston is going to ride or die with Aron Baynes trying to cover the seven-footer, and there were times in the third quarter where Embiid just bossed him around the paint like a rag doll.
However, this game will be all about Simmons and how he responds to a sub-par Game 1 performance. While the Sixers are like Golden State-lite offensively in that there are "X" amount of turnovers expected every given game, it's the type of turnovers that make or break a game, and live-ball turnovers are the worst.
Philadelphia had four live-ball turnovers in Game 1 the Celtics converted into 11 points, which is about as close to perfection a team can get when taking advantage of opponents' mistakes. The 76ers cannot afford those kinds of lapses, nor can they let Rozier punish them on the perimeter.
This game will be a toss-up because Philadelphia will have made adjustments to what Boston did well in Game 1, and Stevens will make adjustments to Philadelphia's adjustments. This is the first time there is actual game pressure on the 76ers, and it will be interesting to see how they respond. Look for the 76ers to make just enough plays down the stretch to escape Boston with a split after a 108-103 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on TNT and nationally in Canada on SportsNet One. Tip-off time is 8:30 pm EDT.
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