“Everything,” Marcus Smart replied to what went wrong in the pivotal Game 5. “Everything went wrong. They made every right play. They made every hustle play. Everything went wrong for us that could go wrong.”
The Celtics starting point guard and this year’s Hustle Award winner couldn’t be more right.
For the most part, Boston has been able to contain the two-man game of James Harden and Joel Embiid. Just as they were able to withstand whatever the Hawks could generate out of a pick-and-roll with Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, the Celtics have minimized the mid-range game of the reigning MVP and the former MVP’s drives and floaters in the restricted area.
On Tuesday night, Embiid hit 5-of-11 between the paint and the arc. He’s killed them all year in that range, but they effectively kept him out of the restricted area (0-for-2). That’s a win in Boston’s book. Harden didn’t go off either. After 45 points in the opener and 42 points including the game-winning 3 in Game 4’s OT, The Beard was trimmed to 17. Embiid finished the night with 33 points, but if you watched the four regular season games between the teams, Boston has been content with him getting his.
In Game 5, it was the others that were a problem.
Philadelphia finished the regular season as the best three-point shooting team in the league at 38.7% and in their three wins, they’ve had a handful of players capitalize on good looks. In Game 1, it wasn’t necessarily Harden’s 7-for-14 performance from behind the arc; De’Anthony Melton hitting 5-of-6 was the real dagger. In Game 4, Harden again caught fire, making 6-of-9, but Georges Niang’s three timely threes were the back breaker. And again in Game 5, it was Tyrese Maxey’s 6-of-12 and 30 total points that buried Boston.
On the other side of the ball, threes were also an issue. After a loss in Game 1, head coach Joe Mazzulla was adamant that while Boston was getting to the rim against an Embiid-less defense, that was out of character for their offensive system.
“We only shot 26 threes, so I don’t know if that’s the best way to go about it,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of just staying spaced, making quick decisions and reading the game. I don’t think 26 threes is a recipe for our success as a team.”
In the subsequent three games, they shot 51, 45, and 44 three-pointers and made nearly 38% of those attempts. In Game 5, those numbers came crashing down. Save for a couple of garbage time makes from Payton Pritchard and Sam Hauser, Boston made just 9-of-34 from behind the arc (26.4%). Elite shooter Al Horford missed all seven. For the year, they were 1-7 in games they made less than 27% of their threes.
Combine the wide gap in outside shooting with the 76ers outscoring the Celtics 15-to-5 on fast break points plus Philly’s massive advantage on the glass (40-to-27) plus Boston’s nine missed free throws and it all adds up to a deflating loss at the most crucial time.
The good news is, they were due a stinker in the postseason and now it’s done. “We got a resilient group. Tonight, it just seemed like the door wouldn’t open. We couldn’t get nothing going and every game has got its own story,” Brown said after the game. “That’s the beauty of basketball. I believe in my guys. I think that we can come out and be inspired to play the next game.”