A heartbreaking loss on the last possession of overtime isn’t how most of us envisioned the Boston Celtics ending game four of their second-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Sports can be like that, though. One moment you’re riding the crest of a wave. The next, that wave comes crashing down with a thud, and reality begins to set back in.
For the Celtics, that reality is that they spurned an opportunity to go 3-1 up on the series and head back home to close things out in front of a raucous Celtics crowd. Instead, the Celtics are now in a best 2-out-of-3 contest with a rival that possesses a former MVP and the current MVP - both of whom are starting to make their presence felt.
Doc Rivers drew first blood in game 4, and now, all eyes will be on Joe Mazzulla as he continues to counterpunch his way through his maiden NBA postseason. I like counterpunchers, though. They’re smart, witty, quick, and like to set traps, all things that can help you win a battle of the minds. As such, let’s look at three things that could impact the Celtics' chances of winning on Tuesday night.
Figuring out Philly’s side pick-and-rolls
I wrote about this earlier today, so it’s only fitting that I list it as something we need to keep an eye on. In game 4, the Sixers found continued success throughout the first 2.5 quarters by running empty-side pick-and-roll actions that occurred on the wing. The Celtics' defense struggled to contain James Harden and Joel Embiid as they began to attack the space the lack of strongside low man created, and quickly, the Sixers' two-man game began to look as dangerous as advertised.
Fortunately, the Celtics began to figure things out midway through the third, shut down the Sixers' offense, and clawed their way back into the game. Now, the challenge will be limiting the effectiveness of those screening actions from the jump. Canceling screens, having an additional helper or roamer available, and ‘icing’ the ball-handler as he comes off the screen will all be handy tools at the Celtics' disposal.
At this point, it’s pretty clear: limit the Sixers’ screening game, and you take away their most potent weapon. Having the TD Garden crowd behind you and Joe Mazzulla’s adjustments in your pocket should all go a long way to making those screening actions as difficult as possible.
Get Jayson Tatum going.
For all the negative things said about Jayson Tatum’s first-half performance in game 4, the fact is that he produced a complete game. Dominant on defense, controlling the glass, and finding his scorer's touch when his team needed him the most — Tatum put on a show.
Nevertheless, finding a way to get Tatum going early and avoiding his notoriously slow starts could be another way in which the Celtics can jump out to an early lead. Sure, you’re probably going to sacrifice a couple of assists and rebounds from Tatum if you feature him on offense early. But I’m sure we can all agree that a high-scoring night from Boston’s star player is exactly what he needs at this point in the post-season.
I’m calling a 35+ point night, with 10 rebounds and 6 assists from Tatum in this game, because when the lights start to shine brightly, he usually finds a way to deliver, and the lights don’t get much brighter than a go-ahead game against the Sixers in the postseason.
Get Jaylen Brown more second-half shots.
There is genuinely no reason why Jaylen Brown should only be taking 5 second-half shots in a game, let alone a postseason contest where he’s looked unstoppable around the rim. Yet, twice in this series Brown has found himself operating as a spectator in the latter parts of games, and it begs the question: ‘Why aren’t more sets being run for him?’
Surely, Brown holds more value as a scorer than he does as a floor spacer? I get it; having him on the weakside is a guaranteed way of keeping the defense honest and generating additional lanes to the rim. Yet, ideally, shouldn't Brown be the one tasked with finishing at the rim? After all, this is his and Tatum’s team — the entire rotation looks at its best when both of them are provided the freedom to play their games.
Finding a way to get the ball in Brown’s hands without limiting Tatum’s ability to impact the game has been an issue since the Brad Stevens era, but that doesn’t mean you ignore the problem and feature one of them in each half of the game. So, I’m curious to see how Mazzulla looks to resolve a problem that has already hindered Boston’s offense in 2 games this series.
I don’t even want to consider having to go back to Philadelphia in a win-or-go-home situation. So, I’m manifesting a Celtics win tonight. They’ve been a great bounce-back team for over a year at this point, so expecting them to come out at the TD Garden and take care of business isn’t too much to ask.
I don’t expect Harden to have another big game, and Embiid will run out of gas sooner or later. As such, the Celtics should look to build an early lead and then keep the Sixers at arm's length until their nothing left in their gas tank. I, for one, want to be waking up on Wednesday excited to get a re-watch in and soak in the possibilities of another Eastern Conference final run, but that all starts with winning on Tuesday night.