Brett Brown said, “One win changes everything.” Brad Stevens stressed that “three wins doesn’t mean anything.”
The postgame locker room messaging Friday certainly reflected the trajectory of the teams in the aftermath of Boston stunning a spirited Philadelphia squad late to steal a 102-94 victory and go up 3-0 in their Eastern Conference playoff series.
Boston trailed by 2 points with 1:39 remaining, before Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart carried the Celtics on a 10-0 run to close out the game, and perhaps the 76ers’ season.
“I just thought we played with the right poise,” Stevens said. “Playoff basketball is hard, and Philly’s got talent. They’re physical as hell. They’re big and strong. They lean on you all game. You just have to battle. I just told the team in there, ‘Three wins doesn’t mean anything’ because you have to do all that that you just exerted again. Our guys did a good job tonight of staying the course, and then a great closing run there.”
Here are five takeaways coming out of the most competitive game of this series thus far:
1. Blown opportunity for Philly
Tatum picked up his third foul late in the opening quarter after shooting 2 of 7 from the floor for 5 points. So, Stevens sat Tatum for the entire second quarter. Yet Philadelphia failed to capitalize due to bad shooting in the first half.
The Sixers shot 32.8% on field goals over the first two quarters, and 27.8% from deep. Somehow, Philadelphia still found a way with scrappy, hardnosed defense to keep the game close and trailed 51-49 at intermission.
The Sixers finished with the lowest field goal percentage (29.5) in a playoff game since the franchise moved to Philadelphia just before the 1963-64 season. For the series, the Sixers are shooting 26% from 3-point range.
“We feel like we played a gameplan that would have enabled us to win,” Brown said. “I thought that defensively, we made good adjustments. I thought we executed those adjustments, especially in some pick and roll schemes. Offensively, I liked the pace. I liked our ability to try to get in the paint, and then kick it off outside with more of a paint-to-great type of mentality. We just couldn’t make a shot.
“The good news of 20 offensive rebounds is a fantastic effort, but lots of that [was] there were lots of rebounds to get. I give our guys credit for continuing to shoot the shots they should have. I give our guys credit for going to the offensive boards. Twenty is a large number, but it’s tough to win when you shoot 29 percent for the game, and 23 percent from the 3. It’s really difficult to do that. We did a lot of good things. We just did not make shots.”
2. Boston has playmakers everywhere
Must be nice to be deep enough to survive an off night from Tatum, the leading scorer of the entire series, with a pair of 20-point nights from two other players in Walker (24) and Brown (21).
“Kemba was the way he’s always been, he was a leader tonight,” Tatum said. “He carried us. He was special. Especially on certain nights when guys aren’t playing well, he’s more than capable of carrying us to a win, and that’s what he did tonight.”
Having dropped 33 points in Game 2 and 32 in Game 1, Tatum (15 points) shot just 6-for-19 from the floor Friday. He struggled with early foul trouble, not to mention Philadelphia’s suffocating defense.
“Jason, for his age, he just shows so much maturity,” Walker said. “His poise is second-to-none. He knew he was having a rough night. He never put his head down.”
Interestingly, Tatum’s most significant contributions came over the last 1:39 during Boston’s 10-0 run — with blocks on Embiid and Josh Richardson, in addition to a free throw that extended Boston’s lead to 96-94 with 1:23 remaining.
The Celtics owned a 22-8 advantage in fast break points on the night.
“Another sign of a good player, it wasn’t his night on offense,” Stevens said. “He was in foul trouble and everything else. But he just kept guarding and did a lot of good things, while Kemba, Marcus and Jaylen made huge plays along with him down the stretch.”
Smart nabbed a steal, hit four free throws, and grabbed two rebounds during Boston’s crucial stretch, while Brown chipped in three points.
The fourth quarter featured four ties and four lead changes.
3. Walker finally winning
I’ve never been up 3-0. Sod this is really cool. But the job’s not done.”
Walker spent his first eight seasons in Charlotte, where he amassed a record of 3-8 in two postseason appearances before joining the Celtics.
So, excuse Walker for feeling a little weird about his current team sitting on the cusp of securing a first-round sweep for the second straight year.
“I’m really excited, of course,” Walker said. “It’s really fun to be here, and to be a part of game like this. This is why I came. It’s a really special moment for myself. Obviously, I’ve never been up 3-0. So, this is really cool. But the job’s not done.”
4. Is Brown’s future in question?
You knew the questions were coming about Brown’s job status after Philadelphia dropped a game they were in prime position to win.
The Sixers are 8-11 this season without Ben Simmons in the lineup, and 2-6 in the bubble. Outside of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, where they ran up a record this season of 29-2, the 76ers own a record of 14-31.
Plus, we all know that no team in NBA history has ever rallied from an 0-3 series deficit to advance to the next round.
“The historical reference of the daunting task at hand, we all get,” Brown said. “My mind is truly on trying to find a win. I believe sincerely that wins sometimes change everything, and the mindset, the circumstances. So, in this case, that’s an obvious comment. We’re going to go try to get a win.”
Asked whether he worried about his future after Friday’s loss, Brown didn’t hesitate.
“I don’t, I really don’t,” he said. “I understand the circumstance. My job is to focus on what I really can do. My players deserve that. I’ve been in the city seven years, and tonight’s loss is what’s most on my mind. My effort truly is to try to find a way to win, keep the series alive, and do my job for my players. I’m not rolling over.
“Like everybody would assume that this series is over because we’re out 3-0. I’m not trying to be Knute Rockne, but my sincere opinion is we’re gonna come in and play the game and get a win. To dust it off like it’s delivered for pride purposes, of course. But it’s to keep a series alive. I truly mean that. That’s my message to them. That’s my message to my staff. That’s what I think.”
Joel Embiid’s second-half struggles continued
Every game looks the same: Embiid starts off like gangbusters only to fizzle out in the second half. Game 3 was no different, as Embiid dazzled in the first half for 22 points on 6-of-11 from the floor and 2-of-3 from deep to go with 10 rebounds.
In the second half, Embiid shot 1-of-9 on FGs for eight points and three rebounds.
“Looking at the game tonight, we couldn’t make a shot,” Embiid said. “Nothing would go in. We had some mistakes in the fourth that we can correct. Offensively, no one could make a shot. So, you can’t give up. You’ve got to keep fighting. I don’t want to be swept. I don’t want that on my resume.”
Embiid might not have much choice if his second-half fortunes don’t change in Game 4.
For the series, Embiid is shooting 59% in the first half, and 29% in the second half. In Game 3, Embiid didn’t receive much help once again, as Tobias Harris and Al Horford combined in the second half to shoot 1-for-10.
“Man, it sucks when you play super hard. You try to do everything possible to win games,” Embiid said. “It’s hard when you come up short. No one wants to be in this position. We can’t give up. We’ve got to do more. I’ve got to do more.”
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