Marcus Smart’s best play didn’t count. It was a tip-in, one second after the shot clock expired, from the three-point line. Most players put shots back one foot from the basket, Smart again proved he is not most players. Of the plays that did count, well, take your pick on which one sealed the series.
His most impactful follow turned out to be chasing Jayson Tatum from behind in the final seconds of a 109-109 game. Tatum missed, but Smart floated to the rim to pick up two of the three points he left on the table earlier. On the other end Dario Saric tried to body him, but found out he hit a brick wall. The ball popped out,
landed in Horford’s hands and flowed into a lead.
Tatum found himself by the rim again, but there was no need for Smart to chase him this time. He fed Tatum, wide open, right to the rim for what Tatum can claim as his first game-winning layup in his playoff career.
A scary three that made it 113-112 somehow proved inconsequential as Eddie Paladino called out “Eastern Conference Finals tickets are on sale now.” When Ben Simmon’s final-second heave down two with two seconds left landed in Smart’s hands, the series was history.
The lid held firm on the bucket for the Celtics in the early portions of a game five that felt more important following a debacle in Philadelphia. Terry Rozier’s shooting woes in the preceding game helped hold the offense down, but popping an early three, one of three in the first half, he propelled the offense into a back-and-forth draw with the 76ers until the late stages of the second.
Despite a continued battle with themselves on the offensive end, the Celtics hawked the ball through the first quarter defensively. Al Horford ripped a possession from Joel Embiid, then Marcus Smart followed with his own steal, tossing the ball over his back to Tatum, who soared over the moon to slam home a dunk.
Marcus Morris added an additional steal as Boston forced five Philly turnovers through the first frame. Boston led, with Aron Baynes slamming home a put-back dunk to force home some points the Celtics needed to back up their defensive effort.
That flow in their own zone dipped at the hands of Embiid’s shooting stroke. He opened up on the right baseline, hitting four consecutive shots as part of an 8-for-11 opening effort in the second by the 76ers. But he grabbed his ankle, visibly adding to the strain his shoulder put on him at certain points of the series.
Boston stayed pace through Tatum’s scorching start, 5-for-5 following a pull-up jumper from 10 feet and layup. Through Embiid’s fire, the Celtics led on another tip-back by Baynes. Dario Saric quickly erased that matching effort with a pull-up three.
Horford led Boston out of the dark stretch, heaving in a hook through contact several feet from the basket. Smart spun to the cup, for a finesse and power finish and Baynes continued to earn props from the crowd by popping a bailout three from the post from Jaylen Brown and stopping Ben Simmons at the rim to initiate a full-court runner by Tatum.
At the buzzer, Rozier capped the Celts’ scorching stretch into the locker room with a three.
A 61-54 lead at the start of the third fell fast, but not before Brown worked a three to combine for a 12-for-15 start with Tatum. Halfway through the frame Baynes earned himself a standing O, shot-faking Saric and stepping by him for two to boost Boston up 11. Embiid put his foot down with a three-point hook inside, but lost his footing soon after by shoving Baynes after he beat him with a similar fake at the free throw line. The Celtics built their biggest lead at 75-63.
The moment of instability for Embiid did not throw him off, rather it empowered him to directly attack the rim with hard bumps. Two takes quickly generated four points, and as Brown hit his eighth shot in nine attempts, Embiid jammed back through Horford to get within seven points from the line with a free throw split. By the end of the night him and Saric both amassed 27 points on 17-for-32 combined shooting.
Saric stuck a three, officially throwing Boston’s lead in the trash. After trading terrible passes with Smart, Embiid picked up two more points at the line, and JJ Redick knocked down his first three since game four to carry the 76ers into the fourth down one.
Horford had taken his lumps with Embiid inside, but struck back and spearheaded a 10-0 through the heart of the final frame. Brown jumped into 20 point range with a pair of makes inside and behind the arc, then Horford recovered from a series of misses around the rim to bank a second-chance make off the glass to go up 96-94. Brown finished 10-for-13 from the field.
Embiid stuffed Tatum across the midpoint of the quarter, but Horford knocked the ball out from Saric and set Rozier up for two on the move. Tatum got a make back on the cut, before Embiid went back to work to reach 25 points and fed Saric from three to meet Embiid there.
The 76ers bounced back fast from down eight, turning into their own four point lead past the two minute mark. Simmons poured in two makes inside, but fouled Tatum as he beat him to the basket.
With 90 seconds left two points separated Philly from Boston after Tatum tossed an oop to Horford into the lane that likely caused an earthquake inside TD Garden. Horford’s steal vanquished a chance for Philadelphia to maintain their separation, after Smart had followed Tatum’s miss inside to tie the game. Then Tatum finished an open layup from the careful eye of Smart at the top.
Before the game concluded, Redick appeared again, launching a three from the left wing with three seconds left to land the 76ers back within one. Smart missed one of two final free throws, but as the clock ticked to zero he dropped back into coverage and intercepted Simmon’s pass, heaving it into the stands where fans will watch the Cavaliers and Celts face off for a trip to the NBA Finals once again.