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Celtics can’t close out 76ers in Game 4

With a chance to take a commanding 3-1 lead back to TD Garden, Boston fails on both ends of the floor.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Boston Celtics v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

A basketball game covers 4,700 square feet and 48 minutes, but sometimes, it’s just a matter of milliseconds and inches that can determine the outcome.

In the Celtics’ Game 4 overtime loss on Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, the Celtics had 1) a chance to preserve a win with a defensive stop they didn’t get but also 2) an opportunity to close it out with a game-winning shot.

Neither happened by the slimmest of margins.

First, with 26.4 seconds to go in OT and the Celtics clinging to a two-point lead on a Jayson Tatum stepback 3, the 76ers went to their bread-and-butter coming out of a timeout: the two-man game between former MVP and current MVP, James Harden and Joel Embiid. With the smaller Jayson Tatum on Embiid (and Al Horford mysteriously covering the weak side corner), the Philly big man backed down Tatum and got deep into the paint.

Here’s Harden on his heroics:

After the game, Horford admitted that Brown’s double team was a defensive breakdown; up two points, an Embiid bucket only ties the game at worst or a foul puts him on the line for free throws. A corner three-pointer is the last thing you want to give up and Brown took full responsibility for the lapse in judgement.

“Just a bad read. That’s it. It’s a gamble at the wrong time and a big shot by James Harden, but that’s my fault,” Brown said. “I take full accountability. It’s just a bad read.”

However, down 1 with nineteen seconds to go, Boston still had a chance to win and in what has become a bit of a chew toy for Monday morning quarterbacks and the media, head coach Joe Mazzulla didn’t use a timeout at his disposal.

“That was the play. We just had to play with a little more pace,” Mazzulla said postgame regarding his team’s final possession. “We had the right matchup. Jayson got downhill and made the right play at the rim and we had to play with a little more pace there, but that was the play.”

With Tatum driving on a slower Tobias Harris, a smaller Tyrese Maxey, and the Sixers defense collapsing, Marcus Smart got a wide open look and hit it...just a hair late of the buzzer.

“We were just trying to get the right guys in the right spots. We just went a little slower than expected,” Smart said after Boston bled away most of the remaining time before getting into their action. “We wanted to go really fast. They did a good job of getting their guys on the right people and making the play.”

Much will be made of the Celtics clutch play. Three of their four playoff losses have virtually come at the buzzer and closing out games has been an Achilles’ heel for Boston throughout the year. Mazzulla has left timeouts on the board in crucial moments, opting for his team to figure things out on the fly. It’s a philosophy that the team has embraced all year.

“We did it at times last year. We played Brooklyn in Game 1. We didn’t call a timeout and we got a layup on the last play. Sometimes the ball goes in. Sometimes, it doesn’t,” Tatum said after finding Smart not once, but twice to win the game. “We got a good core group of guys that know how to play under pressure in those situations and it just doesn’t always go your way.”

For the most part, this second round series has gone Boston’s way. They’re a +41 over four games and handled the hobbled Embiid enough to mitigate his production. However, two throwback performances by James Harden have tied the series at two apiece as the series heads to Boston for a pivotal Game 5.

“It’s amazing to play this game. There’s going to be tough days, there’s going to be great days,” Brown said.

“You gotta take them all on the chin. God is great. We still got an opportunity to come out on our home floor and play basketball and that’s what it comes down to. The slightest details can cost you a game and the slightest details can help you win a game and we got to make sure that we’re the team that comes out on top.”

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