When you’re slogging through Moby Dick, all you want to do is see the whale at the end. That was Game 3. It wasn’t pretty, but the final two minutes was a microcosm of what makes this Celtics team a potential contender.
As CelticsBlog’s Adam Spinella noted, Jayson Tatum’s strong double team of Joel Embiid to force the turnover was a bit of a curveball from Brad Stevens. For most of the series, Boston has opted to dig at Embiid’s dribble when he’s backing down or flash a help defender when Embiid lumbers into his move, but they have rarely gone full trap.
As Tatum drops down with his seven-foot wingspan blinding Embiid, Kemba Walker shades to his right to cover Tatum’s man, Jason Richardson. With Tatum leaving Richardson, Richardson is the most likely release valve for Embiid to hit on the kick out. Instinctively, Jaylen Brown jab steps over to Shake Milton. Behind Brown, Marcus Smart switches to Horford and doesn’t let his former teammate seal him in the restricted area.
Blitzed, Embiid rushes through his check downs and foolishly tries to hit Tobias Harris in the weak side corner. Smart makes the easy interception and in one move, ignites the fast break with an outlet to Brown for the and-1 on the other end.
Smart’s winning play is the highlight (former CelticsBlogger Jared Weiss does a great job breaking it down over at The Athletic), but Stevens’ decision to call an audible with the trap and the team’s connectivity with its rotations set it up.
On Philly’s ensuing offensive possession, the Sixers decide to get Embiid in some space and run high pick-and-roll. Presumably, that’s in part because Enes Kanter isn’t exactly fleet of foot and it negates his ability to bang on the block with Embiid. Going downhill toward the basket, it also gives Embiid better sight angles to identity oncoming help defenders.
To Kanter’s credit, he stands Embiid up on his drive and as soon as he picks up his dribble, Tatum flashes in to contest the shot. The block leads to a fast break, a clear path foul, two free throws, and an extra offensive possession that effectively ices the game.
On both sides of the ball, Boston is built with length and speed on the wings. That’s a deadly combination for opponents as the Celtics look to turn pesky defense into instant offense. During the regular season, they were 8th in points off turnovers and 6th in fast break points.
After Tatum splits a pair of free throws, Boston keeps it simple. With playmakers all over the floor, they’re trying to target Philadelphia’s slowest defenders. Kanter eliminates Embiid’s length from the play and stations himself at the dunker spot on the weak side. Before the clip starts, Smart sets a quick screen to get the Sixers to switch Shake Milton off and Tobias Harris onto Kemba. Another pick from Brown forces Horford onto Walker and the rest is Cardiac-Kemba-beats-Pitt-in-the-2011-Big-East-tournament history.
“I’ve always felt like I’m a winner, and I want to play at the highest level,” Walker said after hitting the game-clinching shot. “I’m able to do that now and it’s really exciting.”
Just another example of 1) the defense’s principles to keep Embiid in check and 2) the Celtics’ athleticism on the perimeter. On Philadelphia’s third offensive possession under two minutes, they try to diversify ways to get Embiid the ball again, this time posting up Horford at the free throw line and running PnR with JoJo.
Boston is ready for it. Tatum again flashes to Embiid to prevent the roll, but gives himself enough time to contest on the perimeter. Because of his length, he can close on Richardson in the corner to block his fourth shot of the game.
Smart subsequently hits two free throws to extend the lead to 6.
Earlier in the game, I clipped these rote rotations and textbook footwork on the defensive end that short circuited anything that the Sixers had going. They again choked Philly’s last gasp attempt with the same disciplined D that served as the backbone of their 10-0 run to close Game 3.
In the end, Philadelphia shot a dismal 29.5% from the field. Tatum was 6-for-19. Both teams combined for 42 fouls and 58 free throws. It was ugly and if you didn’t see it live, nobody would blame you for skipping to the end. Thankfully, that’s when the Celtics played all their hits: Freebird. Coaching Adjustments in the NBA Playoffs. Clutch Shots. Winning Plays.
Thankfully for Boston, they’re not one-hit wonders.
And here’s a treat if you miss Horford in green and The Garden crowd. The end of Game 3 reminded me so much of the end of Game 5 against the 76ers in 2018. Philly was up late in the game, but then Marcus Smart happened.