Boston, Massachusetts, USA: The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers will meet in the Eastern Conference finals series opener in Boston on Sunday after the Celtics beat the Philadelphia 76ers 114-112 on Wednesday night to advance on a 4-1 series lead. This is the second straight year that these two teams will be meeting in the East finals.
Boston seemed on the verge of a win when they extended out to a 12 point lead in the 3rd quarter, and then again to a six point gap with five minutes to go, but it came down to the last seconds. The Sixers will feel like they had the game at one point too, when J.J. Redick missed a rare clean look from three that would have given them a late five point cushion.
The games top six scorers are all still on their rookie deals.
For the Celtics, Jayson Tatum had 25 and Jaylen Brown 24 on as good efficiency as the 76ers’ stars. Terry Rozier wasn’t as hot as in other home games but still chipped in 17 points. Those six players cover the last four drafts and could be going head-to-head in this rivalry for years to come. Tatum has now scored 20+ in seven straight games, joining Donovan Mitchell as the first rookies to do that in the playoffs since 1972.
For Philly, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid each scored 27 while Ben Simmons found some of his game with 18. All three shot at least 50% from the field. Saric may have been the best Sixer in the series, though he got the least attention of the three. His bullying post game nearly changed the series; he scored on all the Celtics wings and guards that Brad Stevens put on him so he wouldn’t have to pull Al Horford off Simmons. Embiid had a more efficient scoring game than most in this series. He was able to put Horford and Aron Baynes into some foul trouble and also protected the rim in a way we hadn’t seen through four games.
The story of the first three quarters was Jaylen Brown, though. He finished the night 10-13 an 3-4 from 3PT.
Horford wasn’t having a great night through 41 minutes. He’s been the best player in this series but not in this game. He ended 7-16, but was 4-13 at one point. Coming out of a timeout with under 7:00 in the fourth quarter he scored twice over Saric and forced a timeout that led to a transition hoop. That ended a 10-0 run that felt huge, but to the 76ers credit they punched right back with their own run to take a lead. Horford wasn’t the only Celtics’ big to have a good run. Baynes nailed yet another corner three on top of his defensive fight. He also would have put Embiid on his own poster if the Sixers big hadn’t bailed out on a challenge.
With Shane Larkin injured, Brad Stevens moved Marcus Smart back to the bench in favor of Jaylen Brown to make it easier to keep a real point guard on the floor at all times. Smart responded well, as you would expect in a big game. He led the team with a +10 and got to the line 13 times. His classic 14-6-6 line when he shoots 3-8 was huge for Boston. He also harried J.J. Redick all over the floor, especially in the first half.
Smart went to the line with 2.4 seconds left and a chance to give the team a three point lead. He missed the first and then tried to miss the second intentionally (the 76ers had no timeouts left) but it went in, because of course it did. Marcus atoned for the first miss by denying an easy inbounds to Robert Covington and then ran own the court, read Ben Simmons’s full court desperation pass, and picked it off. The series ended with Marcus heaving the ball high in the air to kill the last second of the game.
Tatum and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell are the only two NBA rookies with seven straight playoff games of at least 20 points since Julius Erving did it in 1972.
The Celtics now return to the Conference Finals for the second season running, but with an very different team. LeBron James and the Cavalier await again. The Cavs seem vulnerable as a team, but LeBron seems as unassailable as ever. That being said, these Celtics have been overcoming the odds from five minutes into the season. This team, in this form, isn’t supposed to be here. They weren’t supposed to win 55 games. They weren’t supposed to win this series.
The Celtics are mindful of the fact that the Indiana Pacers pushed the Cavs to seven games. Celtics will enter the series as underdogs despite having home court advantage again.