BOSTON — Aron Baynes was in the corner to keep Joel Embiid away from the basket.
“You need as much space as you can get,” Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals about playing against the Philadelphia 76ers. “They’re really athletic. They’re tough. They’re a great defensive team.”
In the first round, the Miami Heat shot just 5-for-19 at the rim when Embiid was there to protect it. So Baynes, the Celtics’ 6-foot-10 brute of a center who has made four 3-pointers in 376 career regular season games, was often spaced beyond the 3-point line to, hopefully, give his teammates some space to drive.
But if he was going to be out there, if his teammates were going to pass him the ball, and if Embiid had no intention of venturing out to defend him, Baynes was going to shoot. He did so three times, making a pair from the corners.
And that was how it went for the Celtics on Monday. The No. 1 defensive team in the league had a remarkable offensive performance without three of its best offensive players against another top-three defense. Boston shot 17-for-35 from 3-point range on its way to a 117-101 victory in Game 1, improving to 5-0 at home in the playoffs.
The Celtics have been without Gordon Hayward since the first game of the regular season and without Kyrie Irving for the past seven weeks. And to open the conference semis, they were without Jaylen Brown, who had the team’s two highest scoring games (34 and 30 points) in the first round against Milwaukee and suffered a right hamstring strain in the first half of Game 7 on Saturday.
Apparently, the Celtics have to sacrifice a player for every step forward they take this season.
There was little doubt the Celtics would still defend, but how they were going to generate offense against the Sixers without Brown was the question. And it was still a question midway through the second quarter, with the Celtics having scored just 30 points on their first 34 possessions of Game 1.
But then the floodgates opened. Starting with a Semi Ojeleye 3 in transition, the Celtics scored 26 points on their next 13 possessions to take an 11-point lead into the half. The onslaught continued in the second half (56 points on 42 possessions before garbage time kicked in) and the Sixers never had a chance to make it interesting.
There was certainly an element of randomness. Marcus Smart (27 percent on pull-up 3s in the regular season) drained a 3-pointer off the dribble that Dario Saric was happy to let him shoot after a switch. Ojeleye, who got the second-quarter run started, was 3-for-12 from 3-point range in the first round.
“Baynes hit a couple,” Sixers guard J.J. Redick said afterward. “Some of it was just not our night.”
The Sixers also had no answer for the brilliance of Al Horford, the Celtics’ offensive fulcrum who had Philly wrapped around his finger for most of the night, scoring 26 points on 10-for-12 shooting and adding four assists. He took advantage of mismatches when he got them and double-teams when they came. When he played center against Embiid, he spaced the floor and drained a pair of 3s himself.
“I feel like he’s really locked in,” Stevens said of Horford. “He’s done a good job of knowing when to roll and post and play an interior spot, and then knowing when to pop and space.”
No matter who is out there, we are going to play hard and we are going to pay attention to details and take care of business.”
Celtics guard Terry Rozier
The Celtics also attacked the Sixers’ weak links. Philly defended Jayson Tatum (6-foot-8 and athletic) with Redick and Marco Belinelli (6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5, respectively, and not-so-athletic), matchups that elicited an aggressive streak from the Celtics’ rookie, who finished with a career-high 28 points, getting to the line 12 times.
“For different reasons,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said, “we decided to do that [matchup]. And we’ll go back and see how that worked.”
And finally, the Sixers just weren’t the same team that had won 20 of its previous 21 games. Robert Covington, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, got lost on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter, giving Terry Rozier (who finished with a career playoff-high 29 points) an open corner 3 when he got caught ball-watching and Tatum a layup on a botched off-ball switch.
“The defense was just bad tonight, all around,” Redick said. “We didn’t execute our game plan. We didn’t communicate well. On the ball, I thought we did a decent job, but the other stuff really hurt us.”
Philadelphia took a step backward after a 16-game winning streak to end the regular season and an impressive five-game dispatching of the Miami Heat in the first round.
“This was a very poor game from us,” Brown said. “To think that this game is a reflection of what we’ve been doing the past few months would be a mistake.”
In some ways, it wasn’t an accurate reflection of the Celtics either. Their offense won’t come so easily every night. The Celtics scored less than a point per possession in three first-round games against a worse defensive team than the one they’re facing now. And Aron Baynes certainly isn’t a 67 percent 3-point shooter.
In some ways, however, this is exactly who the Celtics are. They figure out a way to win regardless of who is or isn’t available.
“No matter who is out there,” Rozier said, “we are going to play hard and we are going to pay attention to details and take care of business.”
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