In Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the Boston Celtics did what they were supposed to. Having absorbed a tough last-second loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1, the Celtics bounced back with an assertive blowout win, evening the series at one game apiece. Tonight, they were tasked with taking the offensive; a win on Philly’s home court would put them back in the driver’s seat of the series. Though they occasionally struggled in a physically demanding contest, they accomplished their goal, taking a 2-1 series lead with a 114-102 win.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 27 points, though he connected on just 3-of-11 three-point attempts on the evening. Jaylen Brown added 23 points of his own, but struggled with late foul trouble, and Al Horford drilled five threes en route to 17 points. For the Sixers, the hobbled Joel Embiid compiled 30 points, 13 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 blocks, but the Sixers couldn’t find him enough support to overcome Boston’s tenacious defense.
The Celtics kicked off the game with an offensive outburst, drilling six of their first 10 threes in the first quarter — including two from Tatum — and compiling an early 10-point lead. Their performance quickly transformed into a Jekyll and Hyde act, however; once the prodigious three-point rate slowed, their struggles to create advantages in the paint came to the forefront. With the added complication of a flurry of 76ers free throws, the Boston advantage rapidly evaporated, and they trailed by one entering the second quarter, 29-28.
Both offenses remained highly anemic in the second quarter. After hitting six threes in the first few minutes of the game, the Celtics made just one the rest of the way to the halftime break, cratering their three-point percentage down to just 30%. As bad as they looked, though, the Sixers looked worse; the Philadelphia offense shot worse than 35% from the field, getting bullied by a dialed-in Boston defense. The Celtics won a slugfest of a quarter by eight points, and led 57-50 entering the halftime break.
This was a particularly tough night for Philadelphia’s co-star, James Harden. After connecting on a three-pointer and converting several free throws during the Sixers’ first-quarter run, he failed to convert a field goal attempt over the ensuing two-and-a-half quarters of basketball, sitting at a brutal 1-for-9 mark from the field (with five turnovers) through three quarters of play. His nadir coincided with Philly’s best chance to flip the Boston lead, as he bricked a three-pointer with the Sixers down just two points. It proved to be a costly missed opportunity; the Celtics rallied after the lucky break, and took an 11-point lead into the fourth quarter, 88-77.
A small scare: with just under eight minutes to play in the third, Tatum careened into the first row of the crowd and came up appearing to have injured his left knee. He returned to the locker room briefly as Joe Mazzulla challenged a foul call on Al Horford, but was back on the court as play resumed and continued to play with seemingly no limitations.
The Celtics’ injury situation worsened early in the fourth quarter, as Robert Williams III also tumbled into the front row saving a ball out of bounds. He didn’t make it back down the court on the ensuing possession as he came up having seemingly injured his elbow in the fall. He exited the game as Philadelphia went to the free throw line and proceeded to the, Celtics’ locker room. A few minutes later Embiid stepped on Grant Williams’ head in what was very clearly an accident as he fell to the floor in a tangled up situation, and Williams went to the sideline to be attended to by Boston’s trainers.
Meanwhile, the Sixers began to claw into the Boston lead. They trimmed it within two possessions, trailing by six points midway through the final quarter. The Celtics once again seemed to slow their pace with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, looking to work the clock rather than continuing to add to their lead. Once again, the Sixers forced their way back into the picture. A three-pointer from Malcolm Brogdon afforded the Celtics a bit of momentum, giving them an eight-point lead with just over five minutes to play.
With both Williamses now out of the game, the Sixers found a bit of a rhythm. Harden connected on his second made basket of the game, and a couple foul calls led to free throws for Embiid, bringing the Sixers within four points. Grant Williams was able to reenter the game to support the Celtics’ dwindling frontcourt depth, and Horford’s fifth three-pointer of the night forced a Philadelphia timeout with just over three minutes remaining, the Celtics ahead 103-96.
Grant Williams’ return was a welcome sight, and shortly thereafter, the Celtics got more good news: Robert Williams was labeled as available to return, having suffered a forearm contusion in his fall. He didn’t ultimately check back in down the stretch, however, as Mazzulla opted for the Grant-Horford frontcourt as a closing group.
Harden connected on a three-pointer with just over two minutes remaining in regulation, his third bucket of the game, but it was sandwiched by two- and three-point jumpers from Tatum that netted the Celtics a nine-point lead as the clock ticked down. Harden made his way to the free throw line but made just one of his two freebies, and Tatum answered with a 2-for-2 trip to the line of his own, giving the Celtics a 10-point lead with 1:18 left on the clock.
Coming out of the timeout, the Sixers were whistled for a five-second violation on the inbounds pass, leading to a costly turnover. With 39 second left on the clock, Brown made his way to the free throw line, hitting both free throws to put the game on the ice.
Next up, the two teams will remain in Philadelphia with the Celtics looking to take a commanding 3-1 series lead over their East Coast rivals, taking the court for Game 4 this Sunday at 3:30 PM EST on ESPN.