After putting very little effort into a Game 5 loss on their home court, the Celtics must return to Philadelphia to play a Game 6 with the 76ers leading 3 games to 2. The Celtics have themselves to blame for finding themselves one game away from elimination. After their losses, the common thread through the Celtics’ press conferences was that they didn’t play with urgency and that they needed to do better in the next game. Now it is win or go home and so that urgency must come in this game.
Marcus Smart put into perspective what the Celtics must be willing to do. ”If you’re not willing to pretty much get dirty, if you’re not willing to bleed, if you’re not willing to break something, willing to tear something going hard, then you shouldn’t be on that court, because that’s what it is.” Every Celtic must be willing to play with intensity and with urgency and leave everything out there on the court or there is no next game.
The statistics certainly don’t favor the Celtics. Only 54 teams out of 338 teams that have gone down 3-2 in a best of 7 playoff series have come back to win the series. That is just 16%. The Celtics have done it 6 times. The 76ers have given up a 3-2 lead twice, both times to the Celtics. In 1981, the 76ers were up 3-1 and the Celtics won the final 3 games of the series. Last season, the Celtics were down 3-2 to the defending Champion Bucks and they won Game 6 in Milwaukee and Game 7 in Boston to win the series.
Although the core players are the same as last year’s team that beat Milwaukee, this team is not the same. Last year’s team won with a consistent defensive effort and they played harder than their opponents. This team has the individual defenders but somehow, they lack the defensive effort to constantly get stops. A win in this game will start with a strong effort on the defensive end.
There are a few other facts that may go in the Celtics favor. The Celtics have been good in bounce back games and also in games where their backs are against the wall. Over the last two postseasons, The Celtics are 6-1 after a home loss. They are 3-1 when those games are on the road. Also, for the 76ers to win this game, they would have to win 3 straight games against the Celtics. I just don’t see that happening. However, the Celtics have to give maximum effort if they want to win.
Then, there is Doc Rivers’ history as a coach in the playoffs. Doc is the only coach in NBA history to blow a 3-1 lead three different times. In 2003, he was the coach of the Orlando Magic and they lost a series to the Pistons after going up 3-1. In 2015, as a coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, he lost a series to the Rockets that the Clippers had led 3-1. Finally, in 2020, the Clippers lost a series to Denver after leading 3-1. Doc’s teams have also lost a series after going up 3-2 three times in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
Joel Embiid is once again listed on the 76ers injury list as questionable. He missed the first game of the series with a knee sprain, but he has played in the last 4 games and he has played better as each of those games progressed. I don’t see him missing this game. I also don’t see him having any restrictions due to the injury. For the Celtics, only Danilo Gallinari is on the injury list as he rehabs from an ACL tear.
Probable Celtics Starters
Robert Williams III
2 Way Players
Danilo Gallinari (ACL) out
Probable 76ers Starters
Danuel House, Jr
2 Way Players
Joel Embiid (knee) questionable
Al Horford vs Joel Embiid
After missing the first game, Embiid has improved with each game he has played. In Game 3, he finished with 30 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 steal and 4 blocks in almost 40 minutes and in Game 4, he finished with 34 points, 13 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal in 46 minutes. In Game 5, he had 33 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocks. He shot 43.5% from the field and 42.9% from beyond the arc. The Celtics need to make things difficult for him as he can be a difference maker if he is allowed to gain confidence. The Celtics also need Al Horford to play better in this game. He was 0-7 in Game 6 and struggled on both ends of the court.
Marcus Smart vs James Harden
James Harden has been up and down in this series. In Game 1, Harden took over the game and finished with 45 points, 1 rebound, 6 assists and 2 steals. He shot 56.7% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc. In Game 2, he finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 assists. He shot just 14.3% from the field and missed all 6 of his 3 pointers. Then in Game 3, he finished with 16 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists and 1 steal. He shot just 21.4% from the field and 28.6% from beyond the arc. Jaylen Brown was the main defender on him in Games 2 and 3 and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this pairing again in this game.
Derrick White vs Tyrese Maxey
In Game 1, Maxey finished with 26 points, 1 rebound 2 assists and 4 steals. He shot 41.7% from the field but just 22.2% from beyond the arc. Then he struggled in Games 2, 3 and 4 but he came up big in Game 5 with 30 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists. He shot 47.6% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc. The Celtics need to play him tough in this game and limit his scoring once again as if he gains confidence, he can have another big game.
Keys to the Game
Defense - Defense will always be key to winning every game, especially in the playoffs. The Celtics lost Game 1 because they failed to play defense. They won Games 2 and 3 because they limited the 76ers with smothering defense. The Celtics made it to the Finals last season on the strength of their defense but that defense has been missing for much of this season. They finally rediscovered their defensive identity in Games 2 and 3 but then slacked off and allowed the 76ers to get pretty much any shot they wanted in Games 4 and 5. Philadelphia shot 50.6% from the field and 40% from beyond the arc in Game 5. The Celtics must make defense their priority for every possession of the game because that is how they are going to win.
Rebound - Rebounding is second to defense as a key to winning. It takes effort to get rebounds and the Celtics must go all out in their effort to beat the Sixers on the boards. The Celtics need to keep the Sixers, who are 4th in the playoffs with 16.1 second chance points, from getting extra points around the basket and they need to give themselves extra possessions by rebounding on the offensive end. The 76ers out-rebounded the Celtics 49-36 in Game 5 and the Celtics can’t allow them to out work them on the boards in this game. If the Celtics want to win this one, it is crucial that they go all out to crash the boards.
Make Adjustments - Maybe it’s time for Joe Mazzulla to go back to the double big lineup. Al Horford and Robert Williams have played just 7 minutes together in the playoffs. In the regular season, they played 332 minutes together and the Celtics outscored their opponents by 15.9 points per 100 possessions during those minutes. Derrick White has been struggling and maybe bringing him of the bench could jump start his game as well. Even if Rob doesn’t start, playing him with Al more may yield good results. Also, Mazzulla needs to adjust the defense to stop Philly’s pick and rolls. In Game 5, Harden and Maxey ran 53 pick and rolls that resulted in 61 points. The biggest adjustment that needs to be made is in attitude and sense of urgency.
Intensity and Effort - In Game 1, the Celtics lacked both intensity and effort. They allowed the 76ers to play harder than them. The Celtics were hitting shots -58.6% from the field, but they slacked off on defense and the 76ers played with much more effort on defense. In Games 2 and 3, they flipped the switch and came out ready to play tough defense and to put out more effort than the 76ers. They have to come into this game with the same mindset that they had in the last two games and be aggressive and play with maximum effort.
Stay Focused - The Celtics need to stay focused on playing the game the right way. The Celtics have to stay focused on taking and making good shots and that includes going to the basket if their 3’s aren’t falling. The Celtics shot just 39.8% from the field and 31.6% from beyond the arc in Game 5. They have to be focused on making the extra pass to find the open man and the best shot. They have to be focused on making crisp passes and not turning the ball over. The Celtics have to keep their focus on playing hard and on playing the right way. They must stay focused on their defensive assignments and not allow the 76ers easy baskets.
Coaching - Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who is in his third year as the Sixers coach, is one of the top 15 coaches in NBA history. Joe Mazzulla is in his first season as a head coach, having been given the job just a couple weeks before the season. Doc has been criticized for his inability to get his teams out of the second round but he out-coached Joe Mazzulla in all but Games 2 and 3. Doc will likely once again make adjustments going into this game and Mazzulla will need to be ready to match those and make some adjustments of his own.
Close Out Game on the Road - Close out games are the toughest games to win. The team that is down usually comes in and plays like a wounded animal while the team that is up tends to relax a little because they have the upper hand. The Celtics need to play like Marcus Smart described and leave everything on the court. They need to play with maximum effort, especially on the defensive end. The Celtics are on the road for this one and so will have to overcome the distractions of travel and playing in front of a very hostile crowd.
Officiating - Officiating is always an x-factor. Every crew calls the game differently. Some call it tight and call every bit of contact while others allow more physical play. In the playoffs so far they have been allowing more physical play. Some favor the home team while others call both sides evenly. The Celtics have to adjust to the way the refs are calling the game and not allow the no calls and bad calls to affect their focus on playing the game. They especially need to keep their poise and not complain to the refs on every call.