Series tied 1-1, heading into enemy territory, on a night where their best player is being honored for his MVP award in front of a packed-out arena. The Boston Celtics can certainly expect a hostile environment when they take to the court for the third game of their second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
However, they can take solace in the fact that a Joel Embiid-less Sixers waltzed into the TD Garden and casually hijacked the opening game of the series. So, if Philadelphia can do it without their star player, then a full-strength (minus Blake Griffin) Celtics’ roster can certainly return the favor.
Playoff games aren’t that simple, though. Both teams will have made adjustments, and the physicality will begin to ramp up. Nevertheless, control of the series hangs in the balance, and as such, the Celtics should come to enter the game with one thing on their mind: domination. With that being said, let’s look at three things that could swing the game in Boston’s favor.
Continue to limit James Harden.
Sitting in the visiting team’s locker room on May 1, gearing up for the first game of the series between the Celtics and Sixers, James Harden reached into his backpack and pulled out a blue water bottle. This bottle had no branding, no eye-catching color scheme. All it had was a golden sticky label across the middle, with the words ‘Michael’s secret stuff’ hurriedly scribbled onto it.
What followed next was a throw-back game for the ages, as Harden and the Sixers left the Celtics shell shocked. Yet, a core part of Harden’s performance in that game was how the Sixers created space for him on the perimeter by utilizing drag screens in transition. So, as you would expect, the Celtics adjusted their defense and limited the Sixers' ability to set those early screens in Game 2 — of course, it helps when Embiid is on the floor and is the last one down the court on each possession.
Regardless of how Boston did it, they managed to nullify Harden’s impact and, thus, limited the Sixers' on-ball creation, something which they don’t have much of beyond Tyrese Maxey and De’Anthony Melton. Finding a way to keep Harden subdued will be a significant factor in how the Celtics fair in their upcoming game. However, the move to assign Jaylen Brown to him worked wonders, so perhaps we should expect to see more of that throughout game three.
Keeping Jayson Tatum on the floor
Tatum’s Game 2 performance against the Sixers was a weird one. A single-digit scoring night and more time spent on the bench than on the court; not exactly what you expect for the face of your franchise. Give credit to the Sixers, though, as they certainly had a game plan heading into the game.
Every time Tatum drove, the Sixers had two players pinching in to close the space while also stepping up to his drive to take the contact and draw a foul. The result was a quick succession of whistles, and Tatum headed back to his trusty exercise bike as he awaited another crack at a defense that was designed to frustrate him rather than contain him.
With that being said, if the Celtics can find ways to generate some additional space for Tatum to work in, especially when looking to drive, then his presence on the court will be another thorn in the Sixers' side — especially if he replicates the level of production that we saw from him in Game 1. Joe Mazzulla has had time to re-watch the game tape, so hopefully, he and Tatum have a plan to avoid him getting caught up with foul trouble early in the game.
Al Horford’s shooting
Al Horford ended the regular season among the best perimeter scorers the NBA had to offer but has found himself slumping from deep in recent games. “That’s just part of it when you’re an elite shooter. You gotta get them up,” Horford said in a May 5 press conference.
Well then, fire away, Big Al, fire away. Because, like it or not, volume can create a significant amount of scoring gravity, regardless of whether those shots are falling or not. The time to worry is when Horford decides to pass up his open looks rather than keep shooting on a night when he’s struggling to see them fall.
As the age-old adage goes, ‘shooters shoot,’ and given Horford’s recent track record from deep, the ice will thaw, and when it does, there will likely be an avalanche that consumes whoever is in its way. The question is, will that avalanche come in game three or perhaps game four? Because, if we’re being honest, there would be nothing more satisfying than seeing Horford drop five or six three’s on the Sixers' domes in front of their hometown crowd, a crowd that didn’t appreciate all that Horford brings to the table.
Joel Embiid’s fitness level will play a significant role in the outcome of Friday’s game. If the MVP looks like he did in game two, then you can expect him to be a net-neutral at best. Yet, if his conditioning has improved and he feels more comfortable playing with his knee brace on, then things could get interesting.
However, like every postseason game of 2023 so far, the Celtics come into this contest with the ability to control their own fate. If we see them play their brand of basketball, push the pace, and make themselves felt on the defensive end, the Celtics should be waking up on Saturday morning boasting a 2-1 series lead and a win in their rivals' own back yard. You know, just to even the score.