BOSTON — The closing scene of Game 1 played nearly out as frantically as the Game 5 that preceded it one week earlier. James Harden pulled up from above the arc over Al Horford for a game-winning three the same way Trae Young did.
The Celtics awkwardly ran an in-bounds play where Marcus Smart tried to dump the ball to Jayson Tatum off the drive, who wasn’t ready, after Derrick White’s aimless pass to Al Horford cost Boston the last shot after Young’s dagger. Both times, the Celtics lost after squander a multiple-possession lead with under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Boston’s players spoke about the Atlanta collapse as something that happened in a passive sense. Smart saw the team play to not lose instead of to win. Tatum thought they got away from habits that worked earlier in the game, a natural tendency of teams that lead, though one becoming more emblematic of this one. Both times, Joe Mazzulla accepted blame for not getting the Celtics into their sets and spacing. This time, players called out mistakes.
“I wanted to push the pace, but if you’re not running, you gotta make sure you take care of the basketball,” Brown told CelticsBlog/CLNS Media explaining why he pulled out a fast break with two minutes remaining ahead by four points.
“I could’ve played in transition there, but if I don’t have any outlets and nobody’s running and it’s it’s a bad possession. You always want to make sure your guys are running with you ... I felt like I was running by myself.”
A replay showed Smart and Tatum trailing the play after Horford blocked Tyrese Maxey. Only Harden stood in front of Brown before Brogdon, Horford and multiple Sixers defenders arrived. The breakout almost sealed the game, and instead turned into a three-point transition play for Maxey in the other direction after two Celtics misses.
Tatum thought Smart would shoot on the final play of the game. Mazzulla explained the following day that Boston hoped to target a mismatch that Philadelphia switched. Someone didn’t communicate.
It's all part of an emerging concern as the Celtics offense craters in playoff crunch time — falling to 31.3% from the field and finishing 4-8 over the past two seasons. Mazzulla blamed the team’s offensive management, including 16 turnovers, for the loss, but the team’s defensive posture waned even while scorching the Sixers defense in the first half.
“You’ve gotta pick your poison,” Brogdon said. “This is a high-level team we’re playing, they got a lot of good players just like we do, and you see, they didn’t double Tatum all night, because other guys on our team are making shots … they wanted Tatum to score, they let him play one-on-one most of the night. For us, I thought we doubled Harden a little bit too much and it cost us. It puts us in long close-outs, it puts us in scramble mode. They got a lot of shooters on the floor. They surround him with shooters, because he’s a good passer.”
Horford thought Embiid’s absence impacted the Celtics, letdowns that happened throughout this season and last when star opponents missed games. Brown disagreed and Mazzulla would not classify the loss, which Boston entered favorited by over 10 points, as a letdown. Tatum said any loss is a lost opportunity, not just that one.
Those feelings and descriptors mean less exiting the game than tangible gripes over game plan, and while Tatum expressed comfort in how they handled the defense, Brown said certain game plan and scheme decisions — a lot, he said — did not work.
Mazzulla turned the attention away from the defensive slip-ups at practice on Tuesday, saying hindsight is 50/50 on the decision to double Harden earlier in the game, giving up a pair of threes, and not late. Doc Rivers avoided doubling Tatum to give up layups, rather than those threes, as Mazzulla found himself on the losing side of the math game he continues to stress.
Harden’s 45 points loomed large, though, and while Mazzulla said if the bench did all the scoring and Harden did none, another way of saying pick your poison, every player left the game believing the Celtics didn’t play with enough forcefulness on the defensive end. The 76ers didn’t feel Boston’s defense, something the team could almost never utter after the halfway point last year.
If that’s an intensity issue, Mazzulla struggles in Game 1 with something that afflicted this group in the bubble and last postseason, too. If Mazzulla’s focus on offense or his defensive game plan can’t raise this group’s defensive ceiling, they’ll only continue to face teams more capable of playing the offensive math game with them.
“Our strength is our offensive management,” Mazzulla said at practice on Tuesday. “When you have 20 points off turnovers and you have 10 live ball turnovers and you get out-shot by 12 at the three-point line and when you get out-shot by 11, it really doesn’t matter what coverage you play. It’s a variation game at that point. For this team, they’ve been built on defense for a very, very long time, they have the DNA for that and they’re always gonna play hard, but we manage the game best with our offensive decision-making and we have to continue to do that.”