It’s easy to look at the first round series between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers — which could mercifully end this afternoon — and focus on the demise of The Process. National podcasts like Zach Lowe’s The Lowe Post scoffed at the series as Philly spiraled. Even I wondered what Philadelphia is doing, instead of praising Boston’s game plan. When the 76ers lose this series, we’ll continue to have opportunities to discuss the Celtics.
This moment portends the impending breakup of a Philadelphia team that looked like a NBA Finals contender one year ago. It tried and failed to reach roster cohesion since 2013, by awkwardly integrating Markelle Fultz, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, then eventually Al Horford stuffed the floor with three centers. Key pieces like Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick walked; a Twitter controversy hurt organizational coherency.
The Celtics still needed to beat Philly — a team deemed a bad matchup for them all season — and have done so emphatically, even after losing Gordon Hayward to a Game 1 ankle injury.
Praise starts with Brad Stevens, who crafted the double teams and scrambles to the perimeter that have made postseason life difficult for Embiid. Philly’s star averaged 30.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 1.0 block and 1.0 steal through in Games 1-3. By each fourth quarter, he has appeared increasingly gassed and frustrated with his team’s 26.4% three-point clip. Players stared each other down after defensive breakdowns. Brett Brown flipped a chair.
The 76ers had found an opening in the fourth quarter of Game 3 by sizing up Daniel Theis in isolation and taking advantage of a Jayson Tatum, who was stuck in foul trouble all game. Then Marcus Smart — already owning a momentum-boosting block-and-closeout play in Game 2 — picked off Embiid’s pass out of a double team and swung the game back in Boston’s favor in one fluid motion.
Boston turned around a losing first quarter in Game 2 by running a lineup filled with players debatably in the rotation at the end of the seeding games. Romeo Langford — injured against Washington — defended sturdily against the likes of Horford. Enes Kanter poured in 10 points and nine rebounds. (The Celtics posted a miraculous +24 with Kanter on the floor in that quarter.) Grant Williams hit two threes in that game and added another on Friday. Brad Wanamaker, to quote Stevens, reached a new level in the bubble.
Stevens’ roster faced depth concerns all season and now posts second unit lineups so effective that Philadelphia can barely keep Embiid off the floor. That limits how often the 76ers can play Horford alone with wings, an effective look in the third quarter of Game 3. Losing Ben Simmons hurt, but the 76ers still have talented players that the Celtics seemingly have every answer for. Stevens effectively chased Al with Grant in those rotations.
The 76ers stayed within one possession in each quarter on Friday and won three of the eight before that, similar to the 2018 series when Philadelphia won six of the 13 quarters after Game 2 and the Celtics rose in crunch time to take two of three close games by one possession. Boston didn’t stroll through a team already caving. Plays like Kemba Walker’s rush back on defense to steal the ball from Embiid broke their will — however fragile it stood entering August.
Few predicted a sweep, as the Celtics enter Game 4 as eight-point favorites. Stevens helped, in part, by building up the 76ers to minimize hubris. He astutely noted Philadelphia’s offensive success without Simmons and until Game 3’s 29.4% FG meltdown, Shake Milton, Josh Richardson and Alec Burks challenged Boston’s defense. The drop defense, to Stevens, made the 76ers harder to attack.
The Celtics have never taken runs for granted in this series, pushing them into blowouts. Philadelphia cancelled practice on Saturday, as Embiid and Brown grasped for answers. Boston did that to them. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, with a rotating cast of bigs, pulverized a team they lost three out of four games previously
“We played with the right poise,” Stevens said. “Playoff basketball is hard. Philly’s got talent. They’re physical as hell. They’re big and strong. They lean on you on game. You just have to battle. I just told the team in there, three wins doesn’t mean anything ... you’ve got to get yourself ready to battle, and our guys did a good job staying the course, physical competitiveness all the way through, and then a great closing run.”