The Boston Celtics don’t have Kyrie Irving. They don’t have Gordon Hayward. What they do have is perhaps the best coach of these young NBA playoffs in Brad Stevens, and a consistency that their opponents in the Philadelphia 76ers sorely lack. While you can trust the process all you want, the Celtics are trusting their bench players and young rotation guys for even contributions.
To that end, Boston beat Philadelphia, 108-103, to take a 2-0 lead in the semifinal matchup between the two teams on Thursday.
Philadelphia was far more assertive offensively in the first half of Game 2 than they were in Game 1. The Sixers moved the ball, getting double-digit performances in the first two quarters from three starters. Philadelphia shot much better from the 3-point line, amassing more made triples in the first half (7) than they did during the entirety of Game 1 (5).
Meanwhile the Celtics struggled offensively out of the gate, only finally finding a solution to the Sixers’ redoubled efforts on defense late in the second quarter. Down by 21 with five minutes to play in the second, an offensive surge led by Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier saw the Sixers stall defensively, and helped Boston push it to just 56-51 in favor of Philadelphia to end the half.
The Sixers continued their uneven play to start the third quarter. Philadelphia’s offense seemed to slow, particularly after going through first and second reads on set plays. The Sixers stood around, with only the strong side of the floor moving as weak side shooters stood. Boston used Philadelphia’s stagnation to create turnovers, scoring 16 points off changes of possession alone and beating up the Sixers in the transition game, 19-16.
Philadelphia’s poor play apparently didn’t sit with coach Brett Brown, either. Upset with Ben Simmons‘ decision-making, the Sixers coach sat his star point guard for a huge stretch between the third and fourth quarters, more than 12 minutes of game clock. Simmons finished with seven assists and six rebounds, but just one point.
Boston used the stagnant Philly attack to dominate, and the momentum was clearly in favor of the Celtics toward the end of the game. Although the score wasn’t out of reach for the 76ers, the game appeared to be emotionally capped off after Rozier sent an alley-oop to the sky for Jayson Tatum with 2:23 left.
The final chance at a stop for the Sixers was emblematic of Philadelphia’s defensive issues, too. After forcing the Celtics to rotate the ball on offense with less than 15 seconds to go in the game, Al Horford wound up with the ball at the top of the 3-point arc. Embiid jumped out to cover him, giving Horford the open lane for the drive and the easy score with 8.3 seconds left, giving Boston a five-point lead.
Horford could be seen talking to Tatum immediately after the bucket, apparently surprised he was so wide open. The Sixers had happy feet on defense all night, and despite having less active talent, Boston again played a better team game on both sides of the ball as they ground out the win.
For Philly, JJ Redick led the way with 23 points along with three rebounds and two assists. Robert Covington had 22 points, nine rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Embiid contributed 20 points — albeit on 36 percent shooting — with 14 rebounds and five assists.
The Celtics saw a strong performance from Tatum, leading Boston’s scorers with 21 points, two rebounds, and two assists. Rozier continued his playoff hot streak, adding 20 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds. Marcus Smart, wounded thumb and all, scored 19 points with five rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
Game 3 is back in Philadelphia on Saturday. The Sixers will need to play more evenly if they expect to make a series out of this thing.