In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, the Boston Celtics made the argument for rhythm vs. rest. Playing 48 hours after beating the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 of the first round, the Celtics had one of their best offensive games of the season against a Philadelphia 76ers team (with a top-three defense) that had five days off after eliminating the Miami Heat in five games.
A key to that performance was the Celtics shooting 13-for-24 in the last six seconds of the shot clock. They have players -- Al Horford and Jayson Tatum in particular -- who continually find a way to get a decent shot late in the clock, but that 13-for-24 was unsustainable.
Over the last three games, the Celtics have shot just 33 percent (including 9-for-29 from 3-point range) in the last six seconds of the shot clock. And as Sixers coach Brett Brown noted before Game 4 on Monday, his team deserves some credit for forcing the Celtics work late in the clock. League-wide effective field goal percentage goes down with the shot clock, so late-clock shots are generally good for the defense.
"I feel like there hasn't been much to take from us early," Brown said.
It should also be noted that the Celtics had a below-average offense in the regular season and have been without the guy -- Kyrie Irving -- who averaged almost 10 more points per game than anybody else on the roster in the regular season. Irving is obviously Boston's most dynamic creator off the dribble and his absence has surely been felt as the Celtics have gotten less efficient with each successive game in the conference semis, from 119 points scored per 100 possessions in Game 1 to just 96 in Game 4.
Turnovers were an issue Monday, but the decline has been mostly about the Celtics' shooting, and mostly about their shooting from beyond the arc. After shooting 32-for-71 (45 percent) from 3-point range in Games 1 and 2, the Celtics shot 21-for-70 (30 percent) from three in Games 3 and 4. The attempts have been there, but the makes have not.
According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Celtics' threes were more contested on average in Games 3 and 4 than they were in Games 1 and 2. But they also just shot worse on 3-pointers tracked as "open" or "wide open."
The Sixers have also done a better job of keeping the Celtics out of the corners. In Games 1 and 2, 21 of Boston's 71 3-point attempts were from the corners. In Games 3 and 4, only 13 of their 70 threes came from the corners. The Celtics have shot much better on corner threes (47 percent) than on above-the-break threes (33 percent) in the playoffs, so converting a few of the former into the latter is a good thing for the Sixers.
Boston hasn't been getting to the basket as often, either. The restricted area (1.3 points per attempt league-wide in the regular season) and the corners (1.2) are the best places to shoot from, and the Celtics took a much lower percentage of their shots from those areas in Games 3 and 4 (30 percent) than they did in Games 1 and 2 (41 percent).
One adjustment that the Sixers have made is keeping Joel Embiid off of Al Horford more often when the Celtics play Horford at center. Over the first two games, Boston scored an amazing 59 points on 37 possessions (1.59 per possession) with Embiid as the primary defender on Horford. In Games 3 and 4, Embiid was the defender on Marcus Morris for more possessions (27) than he was on Horford (18). That's a little less stress on the Sixers' center.
The Sixers needed a lineup change to stay alive in Game 4, but they led by five with less than six minutes to go in Game 2 and led by five again in overtime of Game 3. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in the NBA playoffs, but Philly certainly has the ability to win any given game against the Celtics, who, as we've seen in the last couple of games, can struggle offensively.
Thus far in the postseason, the Celtics have been 11.5 points per 100 possessions better offensively at home (where they've scored 111.4) than they've been on the road (99.9). Five of their six best offensive games of the playoffs have come at TD Garden, where they're 6-0.
Returning home for Game 5 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, TNT) won't be a cure-all. No matter where they're playing, the Celtics need to figure out how to get their offense back on track to advance to the conference finals.
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