1. That was more like it. The Boston Celtics evened up their second-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers by playing like, well, the Celtics. And it led to a runaway victory in the second half for Boston.
Boston did everything with more purpose and force throughout the game. They scrapped the soft and no-resistance switching. Most of the night, the Celtics fought through screens or went over or under, while the big held a hedge long enough for the on-ball defender to recover. When they did switch, it was usually away from the play, and it was to get back to the matchups they wanted to have in the halfcourt.
On offense, Boston didn’t shy away from attacking Joel Embiid, who returned after missing almost two weeks with a sprained right LCL. That led to Embiid blocking five shots in the first half, but by the time the second half started, Embiid didn’t appear to have much left in the tank.
But the Celtics also didn’t overdo it with going to the rim, like they did at times in Game 1. If a good shot was there on a kickout, or off a screen on a pullup, Boston took it.
Overall, this was a better mindset and approach on both ends of the floor and it showed the Celtics as we know them perfectly capable of being. In many ways, that makes the Game 1 loss that much more frustrating, given the postgame quotes about being “relaxed” and “not locked in”. But this who they are. Once every few games, the Celtics will frustrate us to no end, but they bounce back more often than not and show why we’re all still bought in on this group winning Banner 18.
2. Jayson Tatum did some good things in the minutes he played. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, given the blowout nature of the game), Tatum was limited to just 19 minutes due to foul trouble. By the time he would have re-entered the game, Boston had things well in hand and Tatum had the rest of the night off.
But to get that point, someone had to step up. Jaylen Brown did that in a major way, as he continues to show that he’s every bit the All-Star, All-NBA guy that Celtics fans believe him to be.
Boston tested Joel Embiid right away with Al Horford setting a pin-down for Brown. With Embiid a bit back, and slow to close, Brown went right into his shot to open the scoring for the Celtics:
This step-through leaner showed Brown’s patience to get to his shot and his soft touch:
TNT did a lot of funky camera angles (that drone has to go!), but this one is kind of fun, because you get to see Brown’s athleticism straight on. He gets by De’Anthony Melton, and when Paul Reed challenges, Brown just sort of floated into the fallaway:
In the second half, Brown’s attack mindset didn’t waver. Philadelphia put two on the ball, but it left them scrambling. Brown made the heads-up cut and Al Horford dropped the dime:
P.J. Tucker was a half-step late on this DHO in tight space. That’s all the room Brown needs when he’s feeling it:
This shot is important. Too often Brown is relegated to being a bystander when games get tight. This is something he can go to, for the Celtics late in games. If he has a smaller defender on him, Brown can get to his spot to go right up and over the defender like this:
When you combine his offensive production with his halfcourt defense on James Harden, this is probably Jaylen Brown’s best all-around playoff performance. Other guys contributed a lot, but Jaylen Brown helped set the tone for Boston on both ends of the floor.
3. Another tone-setter was Joe Mazzulla. He made a lot of adjustments from Game 1. The first was Boston not switching as much. He also changed up primary matchups quite a bit. Jaylen Brown was the primary defender on James Harden. Al Horford and Marcus Smart split the reps on Joel Embiid. Horford did the early banging, while Smart picked up Embiid later, when it was clear that the MVP was going to mostly operate outside of the paint. That allowed Horford and Rob Williams to function in a floating, helping role around the paint.
On offense, Mazzulla clearly stressed pace and taking good shots. The Celtics made Embiid work, but they didn’t overdo it with going to the rim. The drive-and-kick game was operating in full effect.
Game 1 was bad. A lot of that falls on the players, but Mazzulla deserved his share of the criticism he got. The key to winning in the playoffs is making adjustments. Then, adjusting to the adjustments that the opponent makes. Mazzulla did Step 1. Let’s see what he does to adjust to whatever Philadelphia does differently in Game 3.
4. Marcus Smart is a warrior. He’s the Celtics heart and soul because of the way he plays. Playing with essentially a flak jacket on, Smart was still going all-out. Digging out this rebound is a perfect example of who Smart is:
Georges Niang thinks he has the late-clock turnaround here, but Smart says otherwise:
To end the first half and to start the second half, Boston went to Smart working in the mid-post area. Smart overpowered De’Anthony Melton for this rainbow turnaround late in the second quarter:
To open the third quarter, Smart backed James Harden down with ease to get to this fallaway:
Boston needed some extra scoring punch with Jayson Tatum in foul trouble, and they got it from the one who is loved and trusted.
5. The Celtics other two guards bounced back from subpar Game 1s. Malcolm Brogdon was terrific and everything Boston wants him to be off the bench. We said in the series preview that Brogdon’s pullup shooting was going to be a weapon for Boston. On this one, Jalen McDaniels lays back just enough for Brogdon to go right into his shot:
A little later, McDaniels and Tobias Harris switch far too low and Brogdon let it fly again:
Here, Brogdon caught Harris leaning a little too far to his right, and with Joel Embiid laying back deeper and slower to step up, it’s an easy runner in the paint:
Because Embiid wasn’t himself, the 76ers continually sent a little help for him that they wouldn’t normally show. On this play, Harris pinches down to help on Jaylen Brown’s drive and Brown pitches it out to Brogdon for another three:
6. Derrick White was basically invisible in Game 1. He had a similar rough start to Game 2. But after his initial stint, White seemed to get out of his own head and he played great. He created this second-chance shot for Al Horford:
A little later, Horford repaid White by setting him up in the corner in transition:
In the second half, the Celtics took advantage of the Sixers messy transition defense. White was a big part of that with plays like this:
Then, with Embiid laying back and Tyrese Maxey late to come with the contest, White buried a pullup three:
7. Grant Williams should never not be in Boston’s rotation for as long as he remains a Celtic. It was never really clear why Williams fell out of use a couple of different times this season, but it should never happen again.
Williams saved this possession before Marcus Smart completed the rescue:
The Celtics played a lot of double-big lineups. On this play, P.J. Tucker just lost track of Williams, as he floated from corner to corner before working from the corner office:
This is a tough catch, but Williams did a nice job hauling it in and getting the shot off:
By this point, Williams had made a few shots, so he could have let this one go too. But he stayed poised and made the extra pass to turn a good shot into a great shot:
8. ATO plays were a mess for the Celtics in Game 1. They had three turnovers and a near-turnover on four ATO plays. Those are wasted possessions, where you should be getting a quality shot.
In Game 2, that flipped. This was awesome off a set play to open the second quarter:
Later in the first half, the Celtics ran this ATO to perfection to get Jaylen Brown a three:
Scoring on ATOs is always important, but even more so in the playoffs, when possessions are likely fewer than in the regular season. It was good to see Boston get back on track.
9. Most of the fourth quarter was extended garbage time. And the Celtics put on a show. This play from Payton Pritchard to Luke Kornet put a nice capper on a must-win victory:
10. The series shifts to Philadelphia tied at 1-1. The 76ers accomplished their goal of winning one in Boston and stealing homecourt advantage, but the Celtics can take it right back. Joel Embiid isn’t himself, and it’s unclear how he’ll feel after playing in Game 2. Boston showed that when they pick up their defensive intensity, that they can make it very difficult on Philadelphia to score.
On the other end of the floor, the Sixers don’t have a lot of defensive answers for the Celtics. If Boston isn’t throwing it away and passing up good shots, they’re tough to guard.
Game 3 is on Friday night and will feature the toughest playoff environment the Celtics have played in since the NBA Finals last year. But Boston has more than enough to take back control of the series, if they play the right way.