1. The Boston Celtics played Game 3 against the Philadelphia 76ers with an attack mindset. Outside of a brief period in the fourth quarter, Boston did everything with great purpose. They pushed the ball, defended high and hard and stayed aggressive all game.
On offense, the goal was to get the ball up the floor and either get something in transition, or to at least not let Philadelphia set their defense. On the other end, Boston engaged the Sixers ballhandlers at, or often, behind midcourt. And the bigs stayed attached to their opposite numbers all game.
It wasn’t the Game 2 blowout, but on an emotional night in Philadelphia, Boston played a pretty great game to take back homecourt advantage and control of the series.
2. In Game 1, the Celtics overdid it with attacking the rim. It led to a shot mix that Joe Mazzulla was uncomfortable with, as Boston got outdone on three-pointers. “Mazzulla Ball” isn’t just about shooting three-pointers, as many think. The Celtics coach wants his players taking the right three-pointers: threes in transition, threes out of mismatches, and especially threes off good ball and player movement.
Game 2 featured some good process, and Game 3 saw Boston really get back to how they play at their best.
This is barely two minutes into the game. Marcus Smart finds Jayson Tatum on the slip, he kicks to Al Horford, who catches and swings it to Derrick White:
This is a set play that flows into a read-and-react. Jaylen Brown finds Smart on the short roll to start the action. As Smart rolled, Horford screened for Tatum on the weakside. Smart delivers the gorgeous wraparound pass for the wide-open corner three:
Not every instance of good ball and player movement has to result in a three. Mazzulla is perfectly happy with attacking the basket too. This play started with Tatum kicking it crosscourt. As Smart drove the closeout, Rob Williams dove to the rim for the easy drop-off pass and dunk:
Boston loves to go to Marcus Smart in the post after timeouts. There’s a comfort there, because it generally generates a good shot. To open the second half, Smart catches Joel Embiid drifting just enough to leave Horford open for the three:
Tatum has a couple of different options as he drives here. He picks out Malcolm Brogdon, which is never a bad choice:
Boston had 25 assists on 38 baskets. Four players had between four and six assists. Everyone was involved and this was a good example of Mazzulla Ball humming along with the shot profile the Celtics want.
3. Boston’s strategy against Joel Embiid has been to make him work. Over several years now, this has worked to pretty good success. Embiid fairly regularly will have big scoring numbers through three quarters, but by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, he’s barely got the energy to finish it off.
How the Celtics make Embiid work is by throwing a ton of different looks at him. They started this game by defending Embiid straight up with Al Horford. That flowed into a series of double-teams, sometimes off the catch and sometimes when Embiid picked up his dribble. Boston went with Marcus Smart on Embiid, especially on stretches when Embiid tried to work at the nail. Jaylen Brown picked him up for a few possessions and mostly focused on ball-denial defense. When Rob Williams had Embiid, he tended to play off a few steps, trusting his athleticism to challenge shots.
And Grant Williams did a little bit of all of the above, but more on him later!
The Celtics also don’t shy away from attacking Embiid and making him defend in space. They make him work on defense too, which eats into his overall energy level.
Embiid scored 30 points, but if you watched the game, you know that’s a little misleading. He had only four points on 2-of-5 shooting the fourth quarter. His legs looked shot. It’s all that working the Celtics make him do in the first 36 minutes that saps the MVP’s energy over the final 12 minutes.
4. In a 12-point with, the Celtics outscored the 76ers by a +8 margin in fastbreak points. The margin was closer to +20 in transition points. That’s huge for Boston, as they took good advantage of a leaky Philadelphia transition defense.
Derrick White made the hard push here to get Jayson Tatum an open look, as Boston played 5-on-4:
This is beautiful Boston basketball that undoubtedly had Tommy Heinsohn chortling with glee:
Derrick White’s pace all game was outstanding. He’s so good at knowing when to go and when to slow it up. White sees Joel Embiid headed right to the paint in transition here, so he swerves in front of his man to make a natural screen for Al Horford to take the trailing three:
Active hands, a presence all game long, set up this steal. Jaylen Brown sees most of the Sixers jogging, so he’s off to the paint almost as soon as he catches it:
5. In the first half of Game 2, Joel Embiid had five blocks. Then he tired out and wasn’t the same as a rim protector in the second half.
In Game 3, Embiid had three of his four blocks in the first half. Then, in a repeat performance, he wasn’t nearly as impactful after halftime. This time, Boston made a concerted effort to right at the MVP to open the third quarter.
After getting blocked a couple of times in the first half, Jayson Tatum did a good job here of using his body to shield the ball, before finishing high off the glass:
Jaylen Brown’s patience here is outstanding. He could have gone up right away, but when he drew Embiid, he pulled it out. From there, he sets Embiid up with the dribble before getting baseline for the and-1:
On this one, Tatum got Embiid coming off a screen. With Embiid backpedaling and a little off-balance, Tatum’s right up and into the floater:
A little later, Tatum and Brown worked the two-man game to get Brown isolated against Embiid in space. This should have been another and-1, but it’s still another layup against the big man:
6. The Celtics made the most with their extra chances, either from offensive rebounds or recovering loose balls. This three from Marcus Smart was actually Boston’s third shot on this possession:
Jayson Tatum lost the ball, but when Marcus Smart recovered it, he made one of those “No. No. Yes!” shots:
Smart loses the ball here, but it falls right to Jaylen Brown in one of his money spots:
Another deflection, but Grant Williams is first to the ball. He finds Al Horford wide open:
The Celtics were quicker to the ball again here. After a pass-fake, Horford cashed in again:
7. The Celtics had seven blocks in the game. Rob Williams came up with three of them, and this was the best of the bunch, as Williams got to the ball right at its apex:
Jaylen Brown’s individual defense on James Harden has been some of the best of his career. This is an outstanding recovery block after getting screened off initially:
This is just great hustle by Grant Williams to get back in the play after the Celtics turned it over:
8. Let’s stay with Grant Williams for a minute…He scored zero points and missed all three shots he took. And he was awesome.
The Celtics might not win this game if it weren’t for Williams’ play on defense. Al Horford was in a little foul trouble and Rob Williams hurt his right arm saving a loose ball in the fourth quarter. Only moments later, Joel Embiid stepped on Grant Williams’ head and literally squished his face into the floor. It was unintentional and led to this amazing exchange:
Joel Embiid: "My bad. I landed on your head?"— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 6, 2023
Grant Williams: "Hey, it's the playoffs brother."
Joel: "Y'all fell. I tried to fall."
GW: "I knew you were going for the ball."
Joel: "I tried to jump over."
GW: "It's what we battle for, bro."pic.twitter.com/CZ2tT66p88 https://t.co/M4iiruFHU3
Somehow, after being tended to, Williams was able to finish the game and he battled Embiid the rest of the way. He does a good job of pushing up into Embiid, as well as pulling the chair on him. Williams also may be the best Celtic (it’s probably tied with Horford) of shading Embiid to help. Mostly, he’s just an annoyance because he’s always right there. Again, it’s about keeping Embiid off-balance and making him work for everything he gets. Williams does all of that in spades.
Williams disappeared from the rotation at a couple of points during the season for reasons that will never fully make sense. But he’s back in the mix now and he should never not be in the mix for as long as he’s a Celtic.
9. Down the stretch, Boston turned to Jayson Tatum to close the game. Outside of one possession (which was predictably a mess), Tatum didn’t just hold the ball 40 feet from the basket. He didn’t rush things either. Boston did a good job getting him the ball in the scoring area, instead of tasking Tatum with bringing it up and initiating everything himself.
No help can come here, because Boston’s spacing is outstanding. It’s Tatum against Tobias Harris on an island and Tatum is the last man standing:
On the next trip, De’Anthony Melton half-helps, but that’s not enough. And Tatum is enough in the zone here, that he’s not even thinking about giving this ball to Al Horford open the corner. It’s the classic step-back to essentially finish off Philly:
10. The Celtics took back homecourt advantage. If they can win Game 4, they’ll have a chance to close out the 76ers in five games back in Boston.
Game 1 was a mess of a finish for the Celtics and their defense was terrible all game long, by their own admission. Games 2 and 3 featured some excellent defense and the offense got back to what they want to be.
Boston has control of the series again, and they can push Philadelphia to the brink on Sunday afternoon. We’re not crazy enough to say that’s 100% going to happen, but we’ve now seen why all those “Celtics in 6” predictions were a lot closer to “Celtics in 5” than anyone really wanted to admit.