BOSTON — The general consensus coming into this series was that the 76ers should win in six games. All due credit to the Celtics and what they’ve been able to accomplish without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, but at some point all their injuries were bound to catch up with them.
And did you see what Philly did to Miami in the first round? Hell, did you see what they did down the stretch of the season without Joel Embiid? This isn’t a team for tomorrow; it’s a team that’s right for today.
To make it a six-game series, the C’s would have to win one of these first two games at home and then get one for pride in Game 5 before ultimately giving way to the Processors back in Philly. Seeing as how the Sixers have been off for almost a week, the game to get for Boston was Game 1 when the Celtics would still be in rhythm coming off their first round set with the Bucks.
Sure, sure. Makes perfect sense.
What didn’t track was the Celtics would win Game 1 in a blowout, 117-101, thanks to sensational performances from Al Horford, Jayson, Tatum, and Terry Rozier, who went off for a combined 83 points. They were three steps ahead of the Sixers all night, rolling with versatile lineups, and getting outstanding shooting from everywhere on the floor.
“This isn’t who we are,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “This was a very poor game for us. I give the Celtics a lot of credit for producing that. To think this game is a reflection of what we’ve been doing the past few months would be a mistake.”
It’s hard to argue with that. The Sixers, who won 20 of their last 21 games, are not a team who have blown assignments on the perimeter or have shot 5-for-26 from three-point range. This wasn’t who they are at all, and it’s fair to expect them to play much better in Game 2.
“It starts on defense,” Joel Embiid added. “I thought I was shitty. I thought we were bad tonight.”
No one’s going to argue with that either. The real question we have is whether this is who the Celtics are, and for that we really don’t have a definitive answer because they’ve reinvented themselves yet again.
The C’s came into the series down yet another starter when Jaylen Brown wasn’t able to play because of a right hamstring strain. After going small down the stretch against Milwaukee, Stevens was forced to reconfigure his lineup, starting Marcus Smart in place of Brown and reinstalling Aron Baynes at the five.
That allowed Stevens to put Horford on Ben Simmons, and few players have done as well covering the rookie phenom as Horford. He has the speed and footwork to stay in front of Simmons and the length to disrupt his passing angles. It also forced the Sixers to use J.J. Redick on Tatum, which didn’t work at all.
Brown said they’ll look at that matchup and no doubt there will be adjustments coming over the next few days. The biggest adjustment the Sixers can make is to start playing like themselves. The Celtics did what they were supposed to do in Game 1, now we’ll see just how tough and resilient these young Sixers really are.
There were many items to digest from Game 1. Among them:
Embiid can get anything he wants. The Celtics rarely sent double team help toward Aron Baynes in the post, which left him one-on-one with Embiid. Not surprisingly, Embiid went for 31 points on 12-for-21 shooting.
The reason for leaving Baynes all by his lonesome was that the Sixers are just too freaking good on the perimeter. The issue is that Embiid is good enough to negate that strategy all by himself. Stevens is willing to live with that, to a point.
“When we’re up 12,” Stevens said. “You’re just going to have to balance that as the series goes on. He can get 31 in isolation or whatever. If you’re doubling him are you giving up 33 because you’re leaving shooter? It’s a thin line. It’s what makes it really hard to play these guys because they’re so talented.”
It’s telling that Stevens wasn’t all that thrilled with his team’s defensive effort. Their hot shooting masked a few breakdowns that they’ll have to clean up before Thursday’s Game 2.
“There were parts about it that were good, but we have to clean up quite a bit,” he said. “They exposed us in a lot of areas.”
The Sixers may be growing up before our eyes, but so are Tatum and Rozier. We’ve seen flashes of Tatum’s offensive game throughout the playoffs, but this was a complete effort.
There was no hesitation in Tatum in Game 1 and very little settling for long twos. He was in attack mode all night as shown by his 12 free throw attempts. We’ve long suspected that Tatum was capable of such outbursts and this is only a precursor to what should be a long and prosperous career.
“He’s got a bounce,” said Brown, using one of his favorite descriptors. “He plays older than his resume suggests.”
Rozier is another matter. Whatever preconceived notions any of us had about Rozier need to be put on the shelf. He so thoroughly outplayed Eric Bledsoe in the Milwaukee series that the veteran guard was benched in crunch time of Game 7. That was a huge step forward for Rozier, but he was on a different planet in the opener of this series.
He’s quick as hell and fearless in the paint. He also rarely turns the ball over. The fact that he made 7-of-9 from behind the three-point arc spoke to the absurdity of the Celtics’ shooting performance. (Showing up to work in a Drew Bledsoe jersey only cements his standing among the faithful. The dude is a true Masshole in all the best possible ways.)
“I’ve always seen that potential in Terry,” Horford said. “I didn’t know what it was going to be, but he’s taken advantage of the opportunity.”
No one knows what Rozier is going to be, which makes him the biggest X-factor in the series. It’s safe to say that if he continues to play like an All-NBA guard we’ll have to reassess Boston’s chances.
Horford, meanwhile, has been great in the postseason. Full stop. No qualifiers.
In addition to drawing the most important defensive assignment — that would be Simmons — Horford made quick work out of everyone in the post. He’s too quick for most bigs to handle and he’s got a delightfully funky shot release that keeps defenders off balance.
“He’s gone from a very good mid-range shooter in the league to a good three-point shooter to a very good three-point shooter,” Stevens said. “Now he’s just an excellent shooter.”
Again, if Horford’s going to go for 26-and-7 every night, then we have a far different series than the one we imagined.
As wonderful as Boston played, Game 2 is all about the Sixers. They were clearly rusty and maybe they got a little bit ahead of themselves. It’s always dangerous to believe your own hype, especially against a great defensive team with homecourt advantage.
As Brown said before the game. “How we come out and respond to that time off after playing in a pretty good rhythm, who knows? We’ll all be smarter in about five hours.”
They have 48 hours to put that learned wisdom into practice. We may still have the series we expected, but it is most definitely a series now.