Once again, the Boston Celtics had their work cut out for them, but once again, the Celtics made winning plays when they needed them, defeating the Philadelphia 76ers, 110-106, and securing a sweep in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Kemba Walker led the way with 32 points on 8-of-15 shooting from the field, and Jayson Tatum rode a big second half to stuff the stat sheet with 28 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks. Philadelphia enjoyed a resurgent game from forward Tobias Harris, who scored 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting, and Joel Embiid continued his individual dominance with another 30 point performance. But the lack of solid contributions from Philadelphia’s supporting cast weighed them down once again, and they’ll enter the offseason facing serious questions surrounding the future of their roster.
In a curious move, Stevens opted to send Daniel Theis to the bench almost immediately in the first quarter. Theis, who has struggled with foul trouble (some earned, some unearned) in this series, picked up his first foul in the opening 30 seconds of the game, which prompted early minutes for Enes Kanter. After the quick change, Brown cashed in on a pair of three-pointers, and the two teams were underway in earnest.
The first quarter was defined by two categories: three-pointers and fouls. Theis’ early whistle was just the beginning, as the Celtics picked up four more in the subsequent minutes to put the Sixers in the bonus with a whopping six minutes still to play in the quarter. The foul shooting, along with an extended Boston shooting slump, let the Sixers hang around in the later minutes of the quarter. Philly recorded a whopping 19 free throw attempts in the first quarter, and would advance to the second with a five point lead, 32-27.
After nearly seven straight minutes without a made field goal, Walker decided it was time for Boston to score points again. He broke the slump by connecting on an easy pull-up mid-range jumper, and came back two possessions later to tie the game up at 36 with a pull-up three that prompted an angry Brett Brown timeout.
Kemba Walker has reached the 20-point mark for the third consecutive game.— Boston Celtics (@celtics) August 23, 2020
He'd never tallied 20+ points in back-to-back playoff games entering this postseason. (via @celtics_stats) pic.twitter.com/cR3wgEmlVn
Boston had another brief injury scare early in the quarter after Walker took a hard screen from Embiid, but another pull-up three moments later suggested he was feeling okay. The two teams traded one-possession leads in a punch-counterpunch affair for much of the quarter, with some miscues on both sides preventing either from pushing a bigger advantage. The Celtics would trail by one at the half, 58-57.
One constant throughout the game was Walker’s stellar performance. While many Celtics seemed to go through offensive struggles at one point or another — particularly in the half court — Walker just kept cooking. After piling up 20 points in the first half, he tacked on a quick five more to open up the second half. He was playing like someone determined to clinch their first career playoff series victory.
The game remained perilously close throughout the third quarter. The Sixers continued to answer nearly every big play with one of their own. A major factor in their resilience was improved play from Al Horford, who picked up an and-1 layup late in the quarter to bring his scoring total to 12 points, marking his best performance of the series thus far. With just over three minutes to play, an Alec Burks bucket would knot the game up once more at 77 apiece.
A scary moment occurred late in the third quarter, when Harris appeared to get his legs swept out from under him while airborne and landed face-first on the court. He remained down for several minutes and appeared to be bleeding from the face as the Philadelphia trainers signaled a severe injury. Thankfully, he was able stand under his own power, and walked off the court with an ice pack held to the side of his face.
Play resumed shortly after Harris’ departure, and the Celtics started to build an edge on the clearly shaken Sixers. Tatum came to life, hitting a pair of midrange jumpers before connecting on an enormous pull-up three from well beyond the three-point arc. The Celtics closed the third quarter on a 12-0 run, and led 89-77 heading into the final frame. As another Tatum triple pushed Boston’s lead to 17 with 10 minutes to play, the 2019-2020 Philadelphia 76ers felt as though they were on the brink.
To Philly’s credit, they didn’t completely fold as the clock wound down. They responded to the massive Boston run with a 7-2 run of their own, and pulled back within 12 of the Celtics. In a surprise, Harris checked back into the game with five minutes to play, with a bandage above his left eye (he had been diagnosed with an eye laceration and cleared for a concussion). His return, while impressive, was too little, too late. A Tatum breakway pushed the Celtics’ lead back to 14 with just over four minutes to play, and that was more or less the end of it.
With the sweep completed, the Celtics await the results of the Toronto Raptors’ and Brooklyn Nets’ first round series. The Raptors currently hold a 3-0 advantage, largely handling the Nets without much issue. They’ll look to complete their own sweep later today, at 6:30 PM EST, and solidify a second round showdown against Boston.