But lessons about winning come hard in the NBA playoffs.
Al Horford learned those lessons and brought them to Boston, and unleashed them in overtime, giving the Celtics a 101-98 win and a dominant 3-0 series lead.
First, in OT Horford hit what proved to be the game-winner on a brilliantly designed inbounds play that forced Embiid to switch and left the smaller Robert Covington to handle Horford in the post on a clear out. He couldn’t.
The Sixers still had time to get the win, but Horford showed his defensive anticipation with a steal that essentially ended the game, one of three critical turnovers for the Sixers at the end of regulation and then in overtime.
A couple of free throws later, the Celtics had the win.
“I was just trying to press up on Joell, he’s such a tough cover,” Horford said of the steal. “I just tried to press up, the pass was there, so I just tipped it and got the ball.”
As for the game-winner, getting the switch then clear out was the design. Brad Stevens is the out of time out king in the NBA for a reason.
“Totally. Brad is a genius, man,” Horford said.
It was a dramatic end to a dramatic game — one where the Celtics almost won it in regulation with a steal and bucket with 1.7 seconds left, when Simmons and J.J. Redick got on different pages and Terry Rozier made the play to Jaylen Brown.
But it wasn’t over, and the reason made GM Bryan Colangelo look smart. When it came time for buyouts, the Sixers stepped up and got two guys: Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. Both waived by Atlanta, and both made the play that kept the Sixers’ hopes alive.
After that shot a Sixers fan threw confetti in the air and on the court, celebrating like the rest of the building thinking it was a three for the win. However, Belinelli’s foot was clearly on the line.
At home, the Sixers were energized and had runs, but once again the Celtics controlled the tempo and ground the game down to a halt, reducing Philly’s athletic advantage — this game had 94 possessions including overtime (the average NBA game this year was at 100 possessions in regulation). The young Sixers are just learning how to adapt and adjust to the NBA game that way, and Embiid and Simmons are learning just how hard and smart you have to play to win in the postseason.
“It’s the thing that I see and feel the most, and internally hear the loudest, that our young guys, at times, look young,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said after the game. “We’re going to have to find places in this experience and learn from it.”
Embiid led the Sixers with 22 points, but he needed 26 shots to get there. J.J. Redick had 18. While Simmons was more active with 16 points, Boston again did an excellent job of trying to force him into jumpers, which he would not take — Simmons only had one shot attempt outside the paint, and he missed it. Simmons was 6-of-10 at the rim, but as Boston tightened its defense it was harder and harder for Simmons to find a lane inside.
Boston had another big night from their rookie, Jayson Tatum, who had 24 points to lead the Celtics. Terry Rozier kept on rolling with 18 points, while Jaylen Brown had 16.
Horford had “just” 13 points on the night, but when the team needed big plays he was there.