Boston’s Defense Shines Throughout First-Round Sweep of 76ers

As the Boston Celtics journeyed through their first-round sweep of the Philadelphia 76ers this past week, one matter became clear: that their defense is peaking at just the right time of the season.

Coming into the series, Boston knew it faced a tall task in matching up against Philadelphia’s physical frontcourt of Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Al Horford. But what the Celtics lacked in size against that imposing trio, they made up for in heart on the defensive end.

The 76ers failed to reach their regular-season scoring average of 110.7 points per game a single time during the series, as Boston held them to totals of 101, 101, 92, and 106 points, respectively. All the while, the Celtics held Philadelphia to shooting percentages of 39.6 percent from the field and 26.4 percent from 3-point range, which are both leading defensive marks among all 16 playoff teams.

“That's where it starts, on the defensive end,” Jayson Tatum said Sunday evening following a series-clinching, 110-106 win. “Especially in the Playoffs, you gotta get stops, and we pride ourselves on playing defense. We got a lot of really good defenders out there. A lot of versatile guys, guys just want to compete. That's what we want to do. We want to compete.”

Tatum in particular displayed a great desire to compete during the final game, as he dominated on the defensive glass and around the rim. He corralled a career-high 15 rebounds, to go along with two blocks and a steal. The 6-foot-8 wing wound up averaging a team-high 9.8 rebounds per game for the series.

“Whatever I can do to help us play,” Tatum said of his effort, which also included 28 points and four assists. “All that matters is that we're playing, so sacrificing my body and just giving that extra effort. That's all rebounding is, it's just selfless. Enes (Kanter) did a great job boxing Embiid out, so it's on the rest of us to go out there and rebound, get the ball and push it.”

Limiting Embiid was the greatest individual defensive challenge that the Celtics faced heading into this series, and they nailed the task, for the most part. The 7-foot All-Star was held under 50 percent shooting in all four games, which included an 8-of-18 effort during the final matchup. Embiid still managed to tally quite a bit of points throughout the series, but a large bulk of his scoring came early in games before Boston figured out how to adjust to his play.

“Joel's one of the best players in the league, so we do our best to try to make it tough on him, try to make him see bodies,” Tatum said. “We got to double, help, and you got to recover back to your man. It's just about adjustments as the game goes on.”

The ability to make such mid-game adjustments will be even more important in the next round, which will likely feature a matchup against Coach of the Year Nick Nurse and his defending champion Toronto Raptors.

Toronto, which could finish off a sweep of its own against the Brooklyn Nets Sunday night, currently leads all Eastern Conference playoff teams with 118.3 PPG. With that in mind, the Celtics know that they can’t let up on the defensive end heading into the next round.

“We gotta play at a high level on both sides of the ball in the Playoffs, and we’ve got to rebound,” said Jaylen Brown. “Philly was a physical team and things like that, they definitely wore us down at times, so it’ll be good to get a couple of days and look forward to Toronto.”

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