1. The Boston Celtics were less than a minute from a 3-1 series lead over the Philadelphia 76ers. Twice.
A stop at the end of regulation or at the end of overtime and the series heads back to Boston with a chance for the Celtics to finish it in five games.
Instead, James Harden came through twice and the Sixers evened up the series.
What’s disappointing is not just being that close and not finishing the job, but how Boston handled both situations. Sure, Harden had to make the big shots, but the Celtics were just as culpable in their own demise as Harden was.
2. Let’s start with recognizing that Boston showed some tremendous fight in the fourth quarter to make it a game. They locked in defensively and made enough plays on offense to have a chance to win at the end.
Philadelphia shot just 6-of-19 in the fourth period. Joel Embiid, continuing his history of poor closes against the Celtics, was just 1-of-6.
That’s encouraging for Boston, despite the loss. That’s true even if we overlook the fact that playing better for the first 36 minutes wouldn’t have necessitated being so great over the final 12 minutes. But that’s just kind of how it goes sometimes. That the Celtics were able to lock the Sixers down that much should bode well for the rest of the series.
3. Before we get into the messes at the end of regulation and overtime, we want to give some love to Al Horford.
The Celtics veteran was tremendous in the fourth quarter. When Horford did this, it felt like he ripped the heart out of Philadelphia:
Horford was also dominant defensively late in the game. He had three of his five blocks in the final frame. Horford knew Embiid had no legs left, so he went for the block on this jumper and got it:
It felt like this was going to be the play that got Boston the final stop they needed, but they couldn’t corral the rebound:
There’s some blame to be passed around for Boston’s failure to close out Game 4, but none of it goes to Al Horford.
4. Speaking of failure to corral rebounds, the Celtics were bit by it while nursing a three-point lead with just over a minute left. The initial defense here was terrific. But no one got a body on P.J. Tucker and he got an and-1 to tie it:
5. After Al Horford’s last block, the refs had to stop the game to review if the ball hit the rim or not. It was close, so there’s no room for complaining. Had it not hit the rim, the 76ers would have to take a late-clock launch. As it was, the review functioned as a free timeout for Philadelphia.
The Sixers got what they wanted, as the Celtics switched Horford onto James Harden. Horford was right on Harden, and Marcus Smart flew in with some late help. Didn’t matter:
6. Despite the shot by James Harden to tie it (remember that he tied it for a little later!), Boston still had a chance at a game-winner.
Jayson Tatum drew three defenders and made the right play here. Marcus Smart was right on it, but missed:
It’s important to note that Boston went without a timeout after Harden’s basket, despite having two timeouts left. It’s also important to note that Tatum started his drive with over five seconds left. File those things away for later.
7. After going back and forth in overtime, the Celtics were down one with under a minute to play. Did Jayson Tatum push off here? Sure did. He also made the huge shot:
But whatever about that all that. The key is to note that when they needed a basket with less than a minute to play, the Celtics had ball and player movement on the possession. File that away too.
8. Let’s reset before looking at the final two plays of the game. The Celtics are leading 115-113. A two-point shot can’t beat them. Here’s the play:
So much went wrong for the Celtics on this play.
You don’t double off the arc when a two-point shot can’t beat you.
You don’t double one-pass away.
You don’t double off the strongside corner.
Joel Embiid had no legs left. He was running on the fumes of his fumes. Just let him take the tough contested shot.
All of that said, Jaylen Brown took accountability for the double-team. He said he made a bad read and a bad gamble and that it was his fault. Owning it and learning from it is all you can really ask for after the fact.
The bigger challenge is that Boston keeps switching at the end of these games for no good reason. Maybe Al Horford doesn’t stop Embiid, but considering he had been for the last about 15 minutes or so, it’s probably best to just stick with the matchup that’s been working for years.
9. Then you have the final play. Once again, the Celtics have two timeouts left. Here’s the entire final sequence (Sorry it’s in tweet form, but the clip can’t be pulled easily otherwise.):
Insane finish in Philadelphia.— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) May 7, 2023
James Harden three AGAIN for the lead, Marcus Smart’s Hail Mary ruled late.
Sixers win.https://t.co/pU9Em4dc24 pic.twitter.com/gGCHJU4uLY
By the time Jayson Tatum starts to make his move, there’s under five seconds to play. Unlike at the end of regulation, that split second of time ends up mattering, as Smart’s shot is late.
But the bigger issue is that Boston had two timeouts left. Joe Mazzulla could have called timeout when it was clear that things were bogging down and not happening quickly enough. He’s drawn up enough good ATOs this season, that the Celtics probably get a clean look.
But once again, they play it out and this time there isn’t even a look, as the shot was late and never actually happened.
Also, there’s no real movement on the play. Smart relocates after the initial pass, White sets a semi-screen for Tatum. But everyone more or less just sticks.
Finally, Tatum could have forced the issue and taken the shot himself or tried to draw a foul. Mostly, this all just needed to happen quicker. And a timeout could have reset things.
10. The series was heading back to Boston for Game 5 no matter what. Now, it’s a must-win for the Celtics. The cushion is almost gone, but it’s still sort of there. But you hope you don’t need that last little bit of padding.
Boston lost Game 5 at home in the second round last season. They went on the road and won Game 6 in Milwaukee, before blowing out the Bucks back in Boston in Game 7.
But that’s not a path you really want to walk again. The Celtics need to take care of business in Game 5, and then ideally close things out in Philadelphia in Game 6.
On one hand, it’s disappointing that Boston has lost two games that they could, and arguably should, have won.
On the other hand, it’s taken two James Harden buzzer-beaters for Philadelphia to tie the series. That’s not really a sustainable way of winning either.
But it doesn’t really matter how we got here. The series is a best-of-three now. Get two more wins and move on. It’s survive-and-advance time now.