After months of uncertainty, the 2020 NBA Playoffs have finally arrived. Postseason play tipped off early Monday afternoon, and in the third match of the day, the Boston Celtics joined the Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors as one of the teams to begin their much-delayed postseason run with a victory. Jayson Tatum led the game with 32 points and 13 rebounds, supported by 29 points from Jaylen Brown and 19 from Kemba Walker, and the Celtics overcame a mammoth 26-point, 16-rebound performance from Joel Embiid to score a 109-101 victory over the archrival Philadelphia 76ers.
Nothing came easy for the Celtics in their 2020 postseason debut, as the Sixers hung tight from start-to-finish. With Ben Simmons out due to his season-ending knee injury, coach Brett Brown turned to bully ball. They fed the ball inside to Embiid, who responded with 11 points on perfect shooting from the field in the first quarter. While the paint approach was effective, it wasn’t without warts. Philadelphia coughed up seven turnovers (three by Embiid) in the opening frame, leading to nine Celtics points on the other end. The Celtics would enter the second quarter trailing by one, 26-25.
Notably, Robert Williams’ late ascension into the rotation carried over into the playoffs. The Timelord made his first appearance of the game late in the first quarter, and recorded 13 minutes in total (if you believe in such measurements, of course). Though it was a bit of an uneven performance compared to his recent appearances, his trademark energy was as apparent as ever — especially on the offensive glass, where he recorded four second-chance boards.
In the second quarter, Tatum started to emerge from a cold one-for-six start from the field, nailing a pair of his trademark pull-up triples and pulling off a slick drive to the rim for a layup in the early minutes of the quarter. His outburst sparked a 9-2 run that pushed the Celtics into the driver’s seat. The Sixers continued to struggle with turnovers, as well, adding four more and gifting Boston another four fast break points the other way. The Celtics would enter halftime leading 55-49, led by 21 first half points from Tatum (a career high for points in a half).
Jay Smooth to the hoop pic.twitter.com/HDLJAdc7k1— Boston Celtics (@celtics) August 17, 2020
Early in the third quarter, with the two teams trading blows, Embiid rolled to the rim and drew a foul off Brown. Brown came up hobbling after the contact, which appeared to hit his upper leg, and immediately checked out of the game to get attention from Boston’s trainers. He was diagnosed with a right thigh contusion, and checked back into the game with five minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Celtics continued to go to work on both ends of the court in the third quarter. Tatum led the way offensively, while chippy defensive effort from Marcus Smart and Hayward (four steals!) created additional fast break opportunities. Philadelphia continued to tread water, though, and the lead stuck between five and eight points for much of the quarter. With less than two minutes to play, the Boston offense would start to go cold, and the Sixers would capitalize by grabbing a four-point lead in the closing minute on the back of a 13-0 run.
Fans: "Ok but can you do it with a spin?"— Boston Celtics (@celtics) August 18, 2020
A once-comfortable game entered the fourth quarter feeling shockingly precarious. The Sixers pushed their newfound edge up to six as play resumed, but the Celtics quickly recovered their composure and restored the margin to one possession. With just over eight minutes to play, a Brown triple would tie the game back up at 86 apiece.
Midway through the quarter, Horford fouled Brown hard on a drive to the rim, which left Brown on the floor. The play went to video review, and was upgraded to a Flagrant 1. Brown made both free throws, then drew a shooting foul on Harris, hitting another pair of free throws and pushing Boston’s lead back up to six points. The Celtics would push their lead ahead to eight points on the back of a Walker jumper and a Brown three-pointer.
With around three minutes remaining, the Celtics would suffer another injury scare. Hayward came up limping after a tough defensive possession that ended in a fast-break layup, rolling his ankle badly after landing on Daniel Theis’s foot while battling for a defensive rebound. He departed the game and did not return, and was later diagnosed with a right ankle sprain.
The Celtics’ surge wasn’t the final blow, as once again, the Sixers battled back into the contest. They cut the lead to just four points with a little over a minute to play in regulation. After a pair of Walker free throws, Richardson connected on a three-pointer to bring the Sixers within one possession, 103-100. The late surge wasn’t quite enough, however, and free throws from Walker and Tatum would seal the victory for Boston.
Next up, the two teams will battle once more in Game 2, this Wednesday at 6:30 PM EST on TNT.