On the night that Joel Embiid was officially handed the MVP trophy in front of the Philadelphia fans at Wells Fargo Center, it was the Celtics that acted as a team to get a gutty win in Game 3 and regain home court advantage in the series.
Basketball is a five-man sport, but at times, it can feel like a relay race with players taking the baton for 3-5 minute stretches. Patched together for a full-48 and you just might escape out of a hostile environment with the W.
“It’s the playoffs and we’re playing against a great team,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said about his team’s even keel approach to Game 3.
“It goes back to managing expectations. It’s just to win the game, to weather storms, to handle adversity. Every possession is a round and an opportunity. Our only expectation is to be winning at the end of the game.”
To start, it was Jaylen Brown. After James Harden scored 45 points and nearly single-handedly won the opener sans Embiid, Brown embraced the matchup and since then, he’s made just 5 of his last 28 shots with Brown as his main defender.
“It started with Jaylen. Jaylen has picked up Harden, made it difficult on him the last two games. It’s really changed the whole series,” Malcolm Brogdon said.
Brown scored just two points in the first quarter — an uncommon output after leading the team in opening frame points before the All-Star break — but was glued to Harden all night. No word yet if Brown accompanied The Beard to Vegas before the series.
“He’s doing a great job and we are following him, not only on the offensive end, but the defensive end as well,” Al Horford said of Brown’s early intensity. “He’s playing at a very high level right now.”
In the second, Brown picked up his scoring with nine in the quarter, but it felt like those twelve minutes were owned by Marcus Smart. He didn’t exactly fill up the box score, but the former Defensive Player of the Year and winner of this season’s Hustle Award strung together a few Tommy Point plays to keep the 76ers at bay after the Celtics relinquished an early double digit lead.
Marcus Smart is 30 years old with green hair gets the steal and the triple pic.twitter.com/4JiYYqLtI3— dave (@nbadaves) May 6, 2023
The teams again traded body blows after halftime. Some timely three-point shooting from Tyrese Maxey and P.J. Tucker were matched by Al Horford. The elite-shooting big man would finish the game 5-for-7 from behind the arc after making just one of his eight attempts on Wednesday night. But it was to giant 3s from Brodgon that would help build an 11-point lead heading into the final frame after it had been whittled down to 2.
Defensively, the star of the night was Grant Williams. Along with Horford and Smart, Williams was phenomenal against the MVP. Mazzulla has elected to throw a lot of different looks at Embiid, including more double teams and a third defender on the Harden-Embiid pick-and-pop, but the most consistent base defense has been throwing Horford and Williams at him in the high post. Williams has found success getting under and into Embiid and disrupting his timing and footwork. That, well, came to a head late in the fourth quarter when they were fighting for a loose ball and Embiid’s size-17 and three hundred pounds stomped on the Celtics big man.
Ouch. pic.twitter.com/578qMLhbf3— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) May 6, 2023
“Grant has been great. Grant has been humble all year long. He’s been a tough one,” Brown said of Williams.
“He’s been a tremendous part of our team and we’ve challenged him in different ways, in his maturity level, in the ability to play his role, in the ability to raise his level, and gets stops and do what’s needed to be done regardless of sometimes his emotions and his feelings. You can’t ask for anything better than that. Grant is a true professional. To not play a lot in the last series and now, to play more in this series and accept that challenge and put his life on the line for it and get his head smashed into the court and get back up in with a smile on his face. That’s Grant Williams.”
And in the final minutes with the game in the balance, it was Tatum’s turn to shine. He’d finish the night with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting, but he saved the best for last and closed out in the clutch. With the lead at 7 and 3:22 to go, Tatum hit a contested fadeaway and this step back three-pointer to put out the 76ers in the City of Brotherly Love.
TOUGH STEPBACK THREE.— NBA (@NBA) May 6, 2023
TATUM NOW UP TO 27.
Boston now up 10 with 1:18 to play on ESPN! pic.twitter.com/CSh7Q6ErIP
“Poise.” Both Mazzulla and Horford used that word to describe Tatum in crunch time as he carried the team and Boston baton over the finish line of Game 3.