The Celtics now await the winner of the first-round series between Toronto and Brooklyn for a matchup expected to take place later this week in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“I don’t know if it’s much to celebrate,” said Kemba Walker, who scored a game-high 32 points. “We didn’t do much yet. It’s a great thing that we were able to beat that team. It does feel good. But we know it’s not over.”
Perhaps for both squads, Sunday’s outcome marked a beginning, as Boston looks to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 2018, while Philadelphia ponders what’s next after failing to make it past the second round of the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
We’ll get into that with three takeaways from this game:
Walker thriving in playoffs
Over the course of seven days, Walker won more playoff games (4) with the Celtics than he did in the previous eight years as a member of the Charlotte Hornets (3).
Interestingly, Walker woke up Sunday morning feeling “a little under the weather,” according to Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Walker participated in the team’s early walkthrough workout, then skipped Boston’s film session to get checked out by team doctors.
Walker described it as an “upset stomach,” but it didn’t stop him from putting together just the third 30-point playoff game of his career.
“I was just trying to play basketball the right way, which I try to do each and every night,” Walker said. “Whatever opportunities they gave me and that I [saw], I tried to take advantage of it as best as I can. Sometimes, they were back. So, I went to my pull-up. If they were up, I tried to get around the big and get to the basket. If not, draw defenders, and kick it out to my teammates and let those guys do the rest of the work. So, just trying to play basketball the right way.”
It’s obviously working as Walker increased his production in each of Boston’s four series victories. Walker scored 19 points in Game 1, and then followed that up with 22 points and 24 points in the next two games before Sunday’s 32-point outburst.
Walker scored 20 points in the first half alone, shooting 5-for-7 from the floor and 3-for-5 from 3-point range.
“We know that’s a big reason why Kemba came here: he wanted to be a part of something special,” said Jayson Tatum, who scored 28 points to go with a career-high 15 rebounds. “He wanted to win. As happy as I am that we won, I’m even happier that he’s getting the chance to experience this.”
The Boston Celtics athletic training staff deserves some of the credit. When the season resumed, the team placed Walker on a minutes restriction due to lingering soreness in his left knee, and gradually ramped up the point guard’s work as the postseason approached.
“I give a lot of credit to our trainers,” Stevens said. “They executed that plan. That’s not easy to do. He didn’t like playing limited minutes building up. He didn’t like not practicing. But [he] got the knee stronger, got ready to go for trying to be the best that we could be on Aug. 17. He was great tonight. He’ll have to continue to be really good.”
Harris’ injury changed the game
With 2:40 left to play in the third quarter and Philadelphia trailing by three points, Tatum drove to the basket with Harris defending. As Tatum flew to the basket, his legs and momentum swept Harris’ feet from underneath him, sending the 76ers forward crashing face first into the hardwood.
“It got quiet,” Tatum said.
Harris stayed down for a few minutes next to a pool of his own blood, as athletic trainers called for help. Harris eventually walked off the court and received stitches over his left eye in the locker room. Athletic trainers also evaluated Harris for a possible concussion.
“I’m still in some pain with it,” Harris said after the game. “It was a hard fall for sure. My ribs are kind of affected.”
The 76ers as whole suffered the most from that point forward, as Boston reeled off a 16-2 run from the 2:40 mark of the third quarter to the 9:34 point of the final frame. Tatum poured in 10 points over that span.
Surprisingly, Harris reentered the game the game with 5:12 left to play, but by then, Philadelphia trailed by 12 points.
Before the injury, the largest Boston lead was 5 points.
“I feel like the game flipped when Tobias went out,” 76ers coach Brett Brown said. “I think that they went on a 16-2 run during that period. At that moment, the game changed. Up until that moment I felt pretty good about what we were doing. Him coming back out after he took an incredibly hard fall did not surprise me.”
Still, Harris’ injury resulted in a major momentum swing. It also took some of the shine of Harris’ performance. Coming into the game, Harris was 0-for-10 on 3-pointers in this series, while averaging 14.3 points. Harris finished Game 4 with 20 points and knocked down 2-of-5 from range.
“It was very unfortunate,” Tatum said. “I was glad he was alright, able to come back and play.”
The Process 2.0?
We all know about “The Process,” but another one could be coming this offseason for Philadelphia after it suffered the franchise’s first sweep in the first round of a best-of-seven series. The Sixers endured a first-round sweep to the New York Knicks during the 1988-89 season, but that was best-of-five.
Either way, changes could be on the way as Brown now owns a postseason record of 12-14 during his seven-year tenure in Philadelphia. His future as head coach appears to be in jeopardy.
You could almost see that being the case Sunday with 11.7 seconds left to play as Sixers general manager Elton Brand walked off the court wearing a mask with both hands stuffed into his pockets.
Guard Josh Richardson’s postgame remarks certainly won’t help.
“He’s a good guy, he’s a good man, he means well,” Richardson said. “I just think going forward, he’s got to have some more accountability. I don’t think there was much accountability this season, and I think that was part of our problem.”
Asked how the team could establish an expectation of accountability, Richardson said, “You’ve got to start from scratch, and it’s not going to be easy. It’s not gonna be easy and we’re not gonna be comfortable. But that’s what championship teams do. [When] guys are not doing their jobs on or off the court, there’s got to be some kind of consequence, not consequence, but we’ve got to be able to talk to each other and listen.
“And not listen to say something back, but actually hear. It’s a hard lesson to learn for some people, but in order for us to make this playoff run that I think we all want, I know we all want, it’s got to start.”
Brown, meanwhile, tried to avoid discussing his future. Brown did reflect on a Sixers season rife with inconsistency and injuries. The team’s top perimeter defender, Ben Simmons, suffered a subluxation of his left patella on Aug. 5 that kept him out of Philadelphia’s first-round series.
“This season to me was riddled with an amazing abundance of injuries,” Brown said. “This season was a challenge trying to put people where they should’ve been placed. I liked where we ended up, getting Ben off-ball, and the things he did as a sort of 4-man. We all get he’s an NBA All-Star, who’s a point guard. It shows his versatility.
“Ending with Ben’s injury this year, you just really never felt like you jumped into a routine and a rhythm. That’s probably the thought that will linger the most. Missing Ben will resonate for a long time, especially given what he did to prepare himself to play in the series.”
Brown said he realized throughout the season that Philadelphia would experience spacing issues with all the pieces around center Joel Embiid, but he admitted that “I didn’t do a great job” of coaching the team through those.
“You have to take the team that you have and maximize it and get the most out of it, and I did not do that,” Brown said. “We came in and we talked about smash mouth, and bully ball, we’re built for the playoffs, we’re big. Really all those kinds of phrases equaled, man, we have a huge team. We have a big team.”
“The thing that I found the most challenging as the season played out, space became an enormous issue. And effectively you had a mismatch every possession down the court. And the fact is, that’s Joel’s world. That’s Joel’s domain. From a spatial issue, from a team sort of design, that was an area we needed to get done, and I don’t believe I did that great of a job coaching that.”
Joel Embiid and Harris declined to place any blame on Brown for the team’s struggles, and each pointed the finger at themselves.
“Before we go that way, ownership has got to come from the individual at the end of the day,” Harris said. “I’ve got to look myself in the mirror and be better for my team and be able to lead my team in a better way.”
Embiid scored a team-high 30 points in Game 4, but he finished the series at a team-worst minus-45.
“There’s no issue. We’re good. We just didn’t win,” Embiid said. “We came out, we couldn’t make shots the whole series. It’s frustrating. I felt like everybody played hard. The shots just didn’t fall. Then, at times, our defense was not good. We all tried. And we could’ve done more. I could’ve done more. There was a lot of stuff going on, and you just live and learn.”
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