The Boston Celtics opened Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals with a tragic 119-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, who were missing (likely) the MVP in Joel Embiid. James Harden stepped up in his absence, posting 45 points and 6 assists. Jayson Tatum went nuts for large portions of the game, posting 39 points and 11 rebounds. It wasn’t enough.
The Celtics shot 17-20 (85%) in the first quarter and only led by seven points. They entered halftime shooting 28-39 (71%) from the field. Between both teams, only two freethrows were shot, and those came with 30.8 seconds left in the half. Boston went up by 12 at one point in the first half, but turnovers let Philly stay in the game.
While James Harden predictably stepped up offensively, it was actually timely 3-pointers from players like De’Anthony Melton and Tobias Harris (18 points) that kept the 76ers in the game. Melton, in particular, was a huge boost off the bench to start the game, tossing in 17 points on five 3-pointers in just the first half – almost matching Harden’s 21 first-half points.
For Boston, the first half belonged to Jayson Tatum. Almost everything he threw up saw the bottom of the net, with him making 79% of his shots to the tune of 26 first-half points. Jaylen Brown (23 points) and Malcolm Brogdon (20 points) were the other big scorers, while Marcus Smart (12 points, 7 assists) kept the ball moving really well despite some untimely turnovers.
If it weren’t for the turnovers, this really would have been ugly for the Sixers. Unfortunately, the home team coughed it up 8 times in the first half, 16 times total.
The second half opened with a quick turnover, and that ended up being a precursor for Boston’s struggles for most of the quarter. Philly took advantage of Boston finally missing shots, the continued turnovers, and Tyrese Maxey (26 points) turning it on to go up by as much as six before the Celtics remembered that they should have been winning the game shooting that well.
Hats off to Harden, Maxey and Melton. They played great through Boston forgetting how to play basketball. Every great team has an exploitable fatal flaw, and Boston’s flaw is playing down to the competition. No team will win every game convincingly, but you do have to wonder how great the Celtics would look with minimal unforced errors.
Philadelphia’s offense started to slow down after Maxey subbed out following a knee-to-knee collision. Thankfully, he was able to return to the game without injury. In fact, him checking back in came in the middle of an 8-0 run spearheaded by Brogdon and Tatum. Still, the third quarter ended in an 87-87 tie. At the end of the quarter, Marcus Smart took a shot to the chest from Tobias Harris that left him in a ton of pain, but he did return to the game.
Jaylen Brown hit a huge 3-pointer at the top of the key, giving the Cs some breathing room before James Harden came back to tie the game. Both teams entered the bonus with about eight minutes left in the game after only two freethrows were shot in the entire first half. Tatum hit Brogdon with a smooth pass in transition, but he did have to sacrifice his groin after PJ Tucker hit him pretty hard down there. Nothing came out of it . . . somehow.
Marcus Smart came to Boston’s rescue with late-game heroics, first getting an and-1 hook shot on an ISO against Paul Reed and following that up with a cutting and-1 layup on James Harden. He pulled off the trifecta of heroics with a key offensive rebound leading to an Al Horford layup to put them up by three.
The Celtics proceeded to melt down, giving Paul Reed two freethrows that he nailed before Malcolm Brogdon threw the ball away right before a shot clock violation, leading to a wide open breakaway layup for Tyrese Maxey. Tatum immediately ran straight to the rim out of the timeout for two freethrows, making both. Harden scored his 45th point on a stepback 3-pointer game-winner with 8.4 seconds left.
Smart turned the ball over on the last possession trying to execute a handoff to Tatum under the rim, and the Sixers stole one in the Garden. Now Boston is on the ropes, with Game 2 becoming a must-win game on Wednesday night as they lose homecourt advantage and trail 0-1.