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The Celtics’ Game 1 paint dominance came at the sacrifice of the long ball

Boston scored a season-high 66 points in the paint against the 76ers, but shot a season-low 26 three-pointers.

NBA: Playoffs-Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Towards the end of his postgame press conference after the Boston Celtics’ Game 1 loss, Joe Mazzulla was asked about how the Celtics can break open the Philadelphia 76ers’ defense by getting the ball to the middle of their zone instead of shooting over the top, and if that should be emphasized more as the second round series goes on.

Mazzulla took his response in a different direction.

“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.”

Indeed, the Celtics’ 26 attempts were a season low. Meanwhile, they dominated inside en route to a season-high 66 points in the paint, demonstrating that without Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ interior defense is vulnerable.

Boston received criticism all year long for its heavy perimeter-based attack that came at the expense of paint buckets. But in Game 1, they flipped the script to an extreme degree and still lost — and Mazzulla wasn’t happy about it.

What worked for the Celtics that allowed them to rack up points inside? Is that worth fewer threes in a close game, and is there a successful middle ground?

Boston cut all over Philadelphia in a dominant (offensive) first half. Whether it was Jayson Tatum flying past a slower-footed PJ Tucker, Jaylen Brown attacking an aggressive Tobias Harris closeout after a pass, or Brown back-cutting an unfocused James Harden, the Celtics created easy scoring opportunities around the basket simply by keeping up tempo.

Al Horford often stayed out of the paint and drew Paul Reed with him, which further removed rim-protecting presences. If Philly went small with Harris and Tucker as the bigs, Boston would just drive on them.

Even when the Sixers did help early and rotate — here, Reed sees Tatum’s mismatch opportunity and slides into the paint away from Horford, with Harris rotating in response — the Celtics were still a step ahead because of secondary drives like this one from Brown. Tatum makes a remarkable outlet pass, Brown is a step ahead of Tucker’s rotation, and that’s all he needs to blast down the lane and finish over Reed.

Boston had 40 paint points in the first half plus some tough isolated drives from Tatum and few-and-far-between transition scores. In the second half, the Celtics dipped, but still managed 26 points in the paint.

However, the perimeter heatmap looks jarring. The Celtics made just two treys in the second half — and attempted only 12 from distance. One make was a gutsy heave from Jaylen Brown at the top of the arc as the shot clock was running out early in the 4th quarter, the other came in the third when Al Horford splashed a shot as Tyrese Maxey lay on the floor in pain, not exactly flow-of-the-offense scores.

Even more suspect is the four total corner threes attempted in Game 1, with zero makes. The Celtics averaged over 10 corner threes per game in the regular season and were second in the league in frequency of attempts. Mazzulla said Monday that he thought he could have better instructed his players on spacing the floor down the stretch, and on Tuesday, he reiterated the importance of proper spacing on this team.

“Shoot it when you’re open, and be spaced. Spacing is offense, and offense is spacing,” he said after practice.

The 76ers deserve credit for closing out hard on the Celtics’ shooters and denying several easier chances with their effort. But Boston had missed opportunities; even on Malcolm Brogdon’s fateful turnover, Al Horford was open for several seconds in the corner because Reed was helping guard Tatum, but did not receive a pass. Smart and Brogdon did not effectively relocate to find open pockets within Philadelphia’s defense.

Boston knows how to run actions to free up shooters. If Philly goes zone, the Celtics should still be able to shoot over the top from their 5-out base because they have so many options. This might come at the expense of some cutting layups and interior scores, and that’s fine.

A confident three-ball has led the Celtics to this point. They should still look to set a tone driving and scoring inside, but that doesn’t have to come at the expense of more valuable buckets.

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