If the young and brash Philadelphia 76ers expected to steamroll their way through the Eastern Conference semifinals, they got a bracing corrective on Monday night. They’re going to have to earn their way through the second round of the 2018 NBA playoffs, because the Boston Celtics don’t seem interested in giving them anything but a beating.
The Celtics played without All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward or reserve big man Daniel Theis, all shelved with season-ending injuries. They played without starting swingman Jaylen Brown, sidelined by a hamstring strain, and with his replacement, Marcus Smart, hauling around a banged-up and bandaged thumb. And they still had more than enough firepower to absolutely demolish the visiting Sixers, 117-101.
Just as they did in Boston’s Game 7 win over the Milwaukee Bucks just two days earlier, the trio of Al Horford, Terry Rozier and rookie Jayson Tatum led the way for the Celtics, who took a double-digit lead midway through the second quarter and kept Philly at arm’s length for the rest of the night to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven semifinal series. Game 2 tips off at TD Garden at 8:30 p.m. ET on Thursday.
One game after setting a career playoff scoring high to knock off Milwaukee, Rozier topped it on Monday. The third-year man out of Louisville continued his stellar work (especially on the Garden parquet) in Irving’s stead, pouring in 29 points on 11-for-18 shooting, including a scorching 7-for-9 mark from 3-point range, to go with eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in 35 brilliant minutes:
Joining him in carrying the scoring load was the 20-year-old Tatum, whom the Celtics drafted with the No. 3 pick in June’s 2017 NBA draft after trading Philadelphia the No. 1 overall selection — and netting a future first-round pick in return — and who returned the favor by torching the Sixers’ defense to the tune of a career-high 28 points (8-for-16 from the field, 11-for-12 at the foul line) in a team-high 40 minutes:
The player the 76ers drafted No. 1 overall, Markelle Fultz, did not play in Game 1.
While the youngsters cooked, Horford, the lone All-Star still standing in Boston, kept his phenomenal postseason rolling, too:
The veteran big man scored 26 points on 10-for-12 shooting, adding seven rebounds, four assists, just two turnovers and excellent defensive work — especially on Sixers rookie star Ben Simmons — in 33 minutes during which he often looked like the best player on the floor.
After storming through the first round in five games and getting six days off as their reward, the 76ers struggled mightily in the hostile environment of Boston to start the series. Brett Brown’s club shot just 42.2 percent as a team and went just 5-for-26 from 3-point range — a far cry from the 11.4 3s and 31.4 long-range attempts they averaged in beating the Miami Heat. (Here’s where we remind you that only three teams allowed fewer 3-point makes during the regular season than the Celtics, and nobody forced opponents to shoot a lower percentage from long distance.)
The good news for Philly: Joel Embiid shook off the offensive rust he showed after returning the court midway through Round 1 following a month on the shelf with a broken orbital bone. The All-Star center looked dominant on Monday, scoring a game-high 31 points on 12-for-21 shooting, pulling down 13 rebounds and dishing five assists to pace the Sixers’ attack:
Also on the sunny side of the street for the Sixers: after a chilly shooting start, veteran guard J.J. Redick warmed up as the game went along, finishing with 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting from the floor.
The bad news? Basically everything else.
A Sixers defense that finished the regular season ranked third in the NBA in points allowed per possession gave Boston, which has largely struggled to score without Irving on the court all year long, basically every look Brad Stevens could have asked for. Tatum determinedly drove to the basket, Horford orchestrated out of the post, and every time Philadelphia had a breakdown on the perimeter — and man, did it happen often — the Celtics found the open man with an on-time and on-target feed, leading to Boston shooting a blistering 17-for-36 from 3-point range to bury the visitors.
Boston’s shot-making, combined with a good job of taking care of the ball (only 10 turnovers) and an evident commitment to floor balance, all but neutered the vaunted Philly transition attack helmed by Simmons, the 6-foot-10 rookie point guard who nearly averaged a triple-double against Miami in Round 1. Just as they did against Giannis Antetokounmpo, Horford, center Aron Baynes and reserve forward Semi Ojeleye worked overtime to build a wall in front of Simmons every time he thought about building up a head of steam, forcing the Australian playmaker to take an extra beat before he made his move to pass or score.
Simmons found his spots as the game wore on, finishing with 18 points, seven rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block. But he went just 6-for-11 from the free-throw line and committed seven turnovers in his 42 minutes of work, emblematic of the difficulty Philadelphia had in locating and maintaining offensive rhythm and composure.
A similarly instructive signpost: Sixers shooters Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova combined for just 14 3-point attempts in Game 1, as Boston’s guards and wings fought like hell to run them off the line and into either hurried, contested looks or comparatively less damaging long 2-pointers. Worse yet for the Sixers? Those four shooters missed 13 of their 14 looks.
The silver lining, if you’re a Sixers fan, is that the specific extremes on show in this game don’t seem especially sustainable over the course of a seven-game series. It’s reasonable to expect some shooting regression for the C’s — non-shooters Smart (nine points, nine assists, three rebounds, one steal, relentless defensive chaos) and Baynes (six points, six boards) combined for four long balls on Monday, one fewer than the Sixers as a team — and for Philly’s shooters to get some friendlier bounces. (In the early going, it looked like the Sixers were generating exactly the kind of offensive looks with which they roasted the Heat; as the night continued, though, not so much.)
Brown’s not going to enjoy watching the film of the defensive breakdowns that allowed Boston to score at a rate of offensive efficiency — 119 points per 100 possessions — that’d make the Rockets and Warriors feel light-headed. But he’s got two days to drill his young charges on the importance of getting locked in from the opening tip and staying that way, and two days to revisit some of the matchup decisions — Redick and Belinelli guarding Tatum? Simmons guarding non-shooters like Smart but not actively roving to muck things up off the ball? — that helped get Boston’s offense on track and rolling. There’s a lot of series left, and Philly’s got the brains and the brawn to turn the tide.
They’re going to have to do the work, though. As quick as we’ve all been to pencil the Sixers into the final four, to suggest that they’re ahead of schedule and that maybe their time really is now, it’s worth remembering that they’re without home-court advantage against a team with its own All-Star two-way centerpiece, its own gang of hungry young grinders, and its own dynamite head coach capable of pushing all the right buttons. The Celtics haven’t had Hayward all year or Kyrie for the last month and a half, and they’re still here, and they’ve drawn first blood. Time for Philly to knuckle up and get back in the fight on Thursday.
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