By Sean Sylver, 98.5 The Sports Hub
With six and a half minutes to go in the first half of last night’s game, the Boston Celtics had just 26 points and trailed by 22. A guy with a busted thumb and a suspect jumper (Marcus Smart) was the only Boston player who could hit the broad side of a barn, and Jaylen Brown’s rousing first quarter dunk (when the deficit was merely four) seemed destined to be the game’s lone highlight.
Lingering questions from a surprising Game 1 blowout seemed like they had their answers, and the results weren’t favorable for Boston. Could Terry Rozier sustain his torrid shooting? No. Could the Celtics play J.J. Redick off the floor? No – in fact, Redick had been Philly’s top scorer. Could Marcus Morris get cooking off the bench if the starters went cold? Nope.
Meanwhile, Philly was mauling the Celtics on the boards and converting from downtown. But a furious 25-8 run to close the half brought Boston back and suddenly, it was anybody’s game. The rally, something we’ve seen so many times from the Celtics this season, featured both the familiar (a barrage of Rozier jumpers) and the unanticipated (a Greg Monroe sighting).
A 108-103 margin at the final buzzer confirmed the 22-point comeback for Boston – the team’s largest since Game 4 in 2008 against the Lakers. Fans had visions of the 2002 Eastern Conference Finals and Paul Pierce jumping on a table. Given the fact the Celtics previously flummoxed the Sixers with a 21-point comeback in London back in January, it made me wonder just how much real estate Boston owns in the 76ers’ heads, particularly when the opposition’s otherwise-stellar rookie, Ben Simmons, finished with a single point on 0-for-4 shooting with five turnovers.
The usually resplendent game of Simmons and that of flaky pivot magician Joel Embiid was supposed to buoy the Sixers to the Conference Finals for the first time since the heyday of Allen Iverson and Dikembe Mutombo. And while Embiid feels he’s unstoppable and is generally getting his, it’s not pushing the team to victory. He’s averaging 25.5 points, 13.5 rebounds – great. But he also shot 8-for-22 last night (including 1-for-6 from downtown), got into foul trouble, and spent the fourth quarter ushering Boston slashers to the basket rather than challenging their shots.
That includes letting Al Horford scream by for a game-sealing layup, so as to avoid foul trouble for the overtime that never came.
The Green have exposed a different Philly flaw each night. Chalk some of this up to Brad Stevens. One postgame tweet called Stevens a “matchup assassin,” based on the fact he’d previously started Semi Ojeleye but kept the rookie forward on the pine for all but a couple of minutes Thursday night. The coach has thoughtfully chewed on what the opposition has given and spit out a winning strategy. His players have responded when called upon.
76ers coach Brett Brown has been uncomfortable straying from the formula that got his team to this point. Brown drastically shortened his bench for the Miami series and now seems unwilling to rouse a warm body for assistance. T.J. McConnell, for God’s sake, played effectively in 17 minutes after barely seeing the floor in Game 1. McConnell has starting experience and contributed to many of Philly’s second half positives, but Brown stapled him to the bench down the stretch, trying to coax winning plays out of an overwhelmed starting five.
It’s important for Philly that Simmons gets going, and he’ll have that opportunity on his home floor for the next two contests. If the trend holds from Boston’s first round series with Milwaukee, next week will bring us a 2-2 series. The Celtics have been a different team on the road. The hot shooting that helped the Green burrow out of a 22-point hole? Tougher to come by in the other team’s gym. Boston shot less than 40 percent in road games last series, with Rozier posting a 29 percent mark. Al Horford’s numbers were decidedly more pedestrian away from the parquet, as well.
Turnovers seem to come more easily on the road. Boston committed just 19 across the first two games. Don’t expect that to persist. And finally, there’s the propensity for NBA refs to make calls for star players at home. While Philly got to the line more in Game 1, the Celtics benefited from a free throw disparity last night. It may have been a product of aggression, but what happens when the Celtics (and most teams) don’t get calls? They try to shoot their way out of it. It’s often a fool’s errand on the road.
I picked the Celtics in seven games, because Boston has the home court advantage and because I can’t stand The Process™. My brain told me not to, and I’ll inevitably be hit with a wave of regret the first time Boston looks bad in Philadelphia. But while the Sixers and Celtics are both relatively young, untested teams at this juncture, Boston has demonstrated poise and resolve, while Philly doesn’t look ready for prime time. Capitalize on that feeling, and perhaps the Green steal one on the road. Stay the course, and you’ve still got a date for some home cooking in Game 7.
It’s a 2-0 series. The Celtics have Philly cut, but not yet on the ropes. There’s a raft of subplots that remain unresolved. Buckle up.
Sean Sylver can be heard on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can follow him on Twitter @TheSylverFox.