We ended up with one Game 7 in the second round. But it’s between the teams with the second- and third-best records in the NBA this season — and the winner is the clear title favorite heading into the Final Four.
Boston has been here before, one year ago, when Grant Williams hit the shots the Bucks dared him to shoot on his way to 27 points and a Celtics Game 7 win. They eventually went on to the NBA Finals (where they were up 2-1 on the Warriors before things went wrong).
Can Boston repeat their luck? Or is this the season Doc Rivers, James Harden and Joel Embiid banish their playoff ghosts and make the run they are fully capable of making?
Here are a couple of things to look for, plus some betting tips from NBC Sports Edge’s Vaughn Dalzell.
1) 76ers Tucker, Melton must knock down corner 3s for Philly to have a chance
The myriad of adjustments throughout this series comes down to this: Boston succeeded when Joe Mazzulla put defense first (finally). He started two bigs last game in Al Horford (usually guarding Joel Embiid) and Robert Williams III, who usually defended P.J. Tucker or De'Anthony Melton, the guys stationed in the corner.
Boston bet that Williams helping off that duo onto Embiid or roaming the paint to stop drives would not cost them because Tucker and Melton would not make them pay.
Tucker and Melton combined to shoot 2-of-11 from 3 in Game 6.
Hit more of those corner 3s, force Williams to come out and respect the shot and other things open up inside, such as room for Tyrese Maxey drives or Embiid doing Embiid things. The Sixers need those 3s to fall. If Boston can clog the paint, well, the 76ers had a dreadful 90.5 offensive rating last game and we’re likely to see that again.
2) Which duo steps up: Tatum and Brown or Embiid and Harden?
Game 7s often are remembered for unexpected, random players stepping up with big games or moments — Williams last season against the Bucks for the Celtics, or Metta World Peace for the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals against the Celtics — but this game may come down to something much more obvious:
Which team’s core duo steps up?
Jayson Tatum was 1-of-13 through three quarters of Game 6, and while Jaylen Brown was better he was far from overwhelming. Boston’s defense — and the Sixers missing open looks (see item No. 1) — let them hang around until Tatum got rolling and won Game 6. Boston cannot afford that kind of a slow start again, and Tatum is a combined 4-of-30 in the first half of the last three games. Bostons needs its biggest stars to step up and attack — even if that means some missed shots or passes to others, the Celtics need an aggressive, attacking Tatum and Brown. Boston remains the best team left in the playoffs when they are taking the game to their opponent and not waiting for the game to come to them. Which version of the Celtics shows up on Sunday?
At this point, there is no clever move for Doc Rivers to make that changes anything for Philly — their path to the conference finals is simply for the league MVP and the former MVP with the ball in his hands to take over and be the best players in this game. Maxey may get his, Tobias Harris is capable of a big game, and maybe George Niang has another surprisingly strong outing in him, but it all starts with Embiid being dominant on both ends and Harden controlling the game with his passing and pacing. Harden doesn’t need to score 45, but if he puts up an efficient 20 with a dozen assists he can swing the game.
Whose stars come to play with it all on the line?
3) Vaughn Dalzell’s Game 7 betting tips
The majority of public bettors like to take the home team and overs in Game 7’s because of the crowd edge and low totals, but both are actually non-profitable strategies. Here’s why:
Game 7’s have gone under the total 71% of the time since 2018 and 62% of the time since 2003.
The Celtics and 76ers’ Game 6 total was 212.5, yet the game finished with 181 combined points. Game 7 opened at 204, down by 8.5 points from 212.5. In the last 15 Game 7’s when the total moved at least five points lower than the previous Game 6 total, the Under is on a 13-2 winning streak (86.6%), which is in play here.
Home teams are actually not as profitable as you would think in Game 7’s. Over the last 18, the home team is 8-10 on the ML (44.4%) and 4-14 ATS (22.2%). If you remove the bubble games and look at Game 7s since 2018, well, home teams are 6-8 on the ML (42.8%) and 3-11 ATS (21.4%), so still not profitable.