2018 Playoffs | Eastern Conference Semifinals: Celtics (2) vs. 76ers (3)

Disciplined Boston Celtics take advantage of Philadelphia 76ers' late-game meltdowns to take commanding lead

Inability to execute in late-game situations put Sixers in 0-3 hole against opportunistic Celtics

PHILADELPHIA – Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens is the king of the mid-possession timeout.

His team will start running its offense, Stevens will see something he doesn’t like, and he’ll stop the play to draw up something different. It happened twice in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Saturday.

With 26 seconds left in regulation and the Celtics down two, Marcus Morris was isolated against the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons on the left side of the floor. Stevens didn’t like it, so he asked for a timeout that the referees granted just as Morris was rising for a shot … that missed.

With eight seconds left in overtime and the Celtics down one, Morris again had the ball in his hands, this time on the right side of the floor. Stevens again asked for a timeout, which the refs granted after Morris had given the ball to Al Horford in the low post against Ersan Ilyasova.

“I was kicking myself a little bit when Al caught the ball in the post when I did call timeout,” Stevens said about that one. “We were going to get a pretty decent look with that, because they weren’t going to leave our shooters.”

They got more than a pretty decent look instead. Both mid-possession timeouts resulted in layups for the Celtics, examples of how one team just executed much better than the other in a tightly-contested playoff game with a lot riding on it.

The Celtics made plays, the Sixers made mistakes, and Boston has a 3-0 series lead after a 101-98 victory on Saturday. They’ll have a chance to complete a series sweep in Game 4 on Monday (6 p.m. ET, TNT).

Horford was ready to go to work against Ilyasova on that overtime possession, but he wasn’t going to second-guess his coach.

“I learned to just trust this instincts and judgement,” Horford said. “He sees certain things.”

Stevens actually called another timeout when the Celtics had trouble inbounding the ball at the end of OT, because he saw something else. With the second one, Horford set screens for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and the Celtics cleared out the weak side of the floor. That gave Robert Covington no help when he switched onto Horford. Morris inbounded the ball over Covington and Horford had layup that put Boston ahead.

In regulation, it was Brown who got a layup after setting a screen and rolling to the basket. Because the screen was set from the baseline, Ilyasova couldn’t get between Brown and the basket after switch.

“It seems like he just makes the right decision every time,” Horford said of Stevens. “And it worked out for us tonight.”

When you get to the postseason, both teams know what the other likes to run at the end of games. And it comes down to execution. The Sixers were on the wrong side of the execution battle on Saturday, with four brutal, late-game blunders that will keep them up at night.

After the Brown basket that tied the game in regulation, J.J. Redick threw a pass to no one as Simmons knocked over Joel Embiid at the free throw line. The Celtics’ Terry Rozier picked up the loose ball and found Brown on the other end for a layup that put Boston ahead with 1.7 seconds left.

Marco Belinelli saved the Sixers with a baseline jumper at the buzzer, but his feet were on the line as he left the floor, so it only tied the game. Sixers coach Brett Brown said afterward that the play he drew up was designed “to be a walk-off three.” And Brown thought it was.

So, did the guy in charge of confetti at the Wells Fargo Center, who pushed the button that drops the stuff from the ceiling even though the initial call from the refs (confirmed by replay) was that it was a 2-point shot. Yes, the Sixers’ late-game execution was so bad on Saturday, it extended to the game operations group.

The ensuing delay to clean up the slow-falling debris wasn’t as painful as the Sixers’ mistakes in overtime. First was a soft Embiid pass intercepted by Rozier, resulting in a Horford free throw that got Boston to within one. Then after an offensive rebound, Simmons tossed up a shot with 18 seconds left, with the shot clock off, and with no need to shoot. He missed, giving Boston the chance to go ahead.

After Horford put after-timeout layup did just that, the Sixers had a chance to execute their own ATO. But Horford intercepted Simmons’ inbounds pass to Embiid.

Late-game turnovers are not a new issue for the Sixers. They had seemingly learned how to close, outscoring the Miami Heat by 41 points in the fourth quarter over their five-game, first round series. But they clearly still have some learning to do.

Brown admitted that “our guys, at times, look young,” but didn’t want to use that excuse.

“I don’t want to do that,” he said. “I give credit to the Boston Celtics. They played in the Eastern Conference championship last year with a handful of the players that they have. We are navigating through this. This isn’t entirely a youthful thing at all. Nobody write that. Some of the matchups have hurt us.”

“We made mistakes and it doesn’t matter how old we are,” Embiid added. “It doesn’t matter that we’ve never been in this position. You got to give them a lot of credit. They competed. They showed up when it was the time to show up, and we didn’t.”

Horford – “the stabilizer for our group,” according to Stevens – has been the best player in the series, one step ahead of the Sixers at all times. And while Philly floundered, he made big plays on both ends of the flor on Saturday.

“These are the kind of moments,” he said, “that you want to be in as a basketball player.”

More moments are coming. The Celtics are one game away from the Eastern Conference final.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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