Celtics eliminate 76ers in improbable and tight five-game series

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The Celtics looked finished when Gordon Hayward went down in the season’s first game.

The Celtics looked finished when Kyrie Irving underwent season-ending surgery just before the playoffs.

The Celtics looked finished when they ran into the red-hot 76ers.

But, against all odds, Boston is returning to the Eastern Conference finals to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers for the second straight year.

The Celtics advance with a 4-1 series win over Philadelphia, culminating with a 114-112 win in Game 5 Wednesday. That was Boston’s third victory over the 76ers by five or fewer points, marking just the 10th time in NBA history a team wrapped up a best-of-seven series so quickly while winning so many games by so few points.

Game 5, which included 11 ties and 21 lead changes, exemplified the tight series. The Celtics blew a 12-point second-half lead then overcame a four-point deficit with a minute and a half left.

“We’ve got a lot of heart,” said Jayson Tatum, who led the Celtics with 25 points. “We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, no matter how young we are. Nobody expected us to be this far.”

Then asked how to slow LeBron, Tatum pleaded rookie.

Boston’s effort against the NBA’s best player will start with young wings Tatum and Jaylen Brown (who added 24 points in Game 5 tonight). Sprinkle in some Marcus Morris (Celtics-best +10 tonight in a telling number) and Al Horford (15 points, eight rebounds and five steals tonight).

Boston – which opens the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday – will be massive underdogs against the Cavs, but the Celtics have created enough reason for intrigue. That starts with Game 1 in Boston, where the Celtics are 7-0 in the playoffs.

Like Boston, Philadelphia has drawn attention with its postseason run.

Sure, losing in five games to the Irving-less, Hayward-less Celtics is disheartening. But just by making the second round, the 76ers are ahead of schedule.

Led by 24-year-old Joel Embiid (27 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and four blocks) and 21-year-old Ben Simmons (18 points, eight rebounds and six assists), Philadelphia has a bright future. Dario Saric (27 points, 10 rebounds and four assists) leads an impressive supporting cast. The 76ers will probably have the Nos. 10 and 26 picks in the upcoming draft plus max-ish cap space in free agency. The Process is paying off – even if the results this year couldn’t keep up with rapidly escalating expectations.

On the other hand, the resilient Celtics are leaving any expectations in the dust.

Sixers live to play another day, knock off Celtics 103-92 to force Game 5

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The playoffs are a learning experience, and the young Philadelphia team has figured a few things out.

From the opening tip of Game 4, the Sixers came out much more aggressive on defense, both in terms of effort and plan, trapping and doubling on pick-and-rolls, being faster with help in the post, and generally cranking up their defensive pressure. Boston didn’t handle it well.

It was Philadephia’s best game of the series, and this time the confetti could fly without hesitation. Philly will live to play another day.

The Sixers won Game 4 103-92, 25 points from Dario Saric and a career-high 19 from surprise starter T.J. McConnell. The series heads back to Boston on Wednesday for Game 5, with the Celtics still leading it 3-1.

“We have nothing to lose…” McConnell said after the game. “We’re just trying to play our hearts out and be that one team (the first to come back from a 0-3 deficit in the NBA playoffs).”

Philly is a long way from being in a serious conversation about shattering the 129-0 record of 3-0 teams in an NBA playoff series. What matters more is the steps forward, and those were evident on Monday night.

It’s strange to say sitting Robert Covington — an All-Defensive Team level wing for the 76ers — and starting McConnell was a defensive move, but it was. All series long McConnell has been the best defender for Philly on Terry Rozier, the Boston point guard who has been so hot. Not coincidentally, Rozier struggled going 4-of-11 overall and 1-of-6 from three. With the point guard out of sorts, the entire Boston offense became defendable.

Especially with the energy the Sixers showed on defense, which led to things getting a bit chippy at points.

On the other end, the Sixers emphasized getting the ball inside — 51 of their 94 shot attempts came in the paint. Boston had emphasized taking away the Philadelphia three ball, so the Sixers pounded them in the paint and also on the boards — the Sixers grabbed the offensive rebound on 30.2 percent of their missed shots in this game.

“It just shows when they take something away, we’re mature enough to go to something else. Even though we were a little immature on our home floor in our last game, we showed a lot of maturity today and came up with the win.”

McConnell was getting buckets with his 19 points, same as Ben Simmons. Joel Embiid had 15. The Sixers were racking up assists with good ball movement, but more importantly they only turned the ball over on 10 percent of their possessions (turnovers have been a weakness all season)

That said, neither team was terribly efficient — Boston scored less than a point per possession in Game 4, Philadelphia had a net rating of 103.6 (points per 100 possessions, more than 4 points per 100 off their regular season average).

Boston’s defense seemed to slip in the second half, and they couldn’t get the buckets needed to close the gap after a third-quarter Philly run pushed the lead to double digits.

The Celtics were led by Jayson Tatum who had 20 points, followed by Marcus Morris who had 17 off the bench. Marcus Smart added 14, but when your defensive specialist is your third leading scorer it can be a sign of trouble.

It was for Boston on this night, but now the Celtics head home looking to end this series. Boston didn’t have the answers for Philly’s intensity on Monday, expect things to feel different on Wednesday in The Garden.

Joel Embiid destroys Aron Baynes with monster dunk

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What makes the Sixers especially dangerous in transition isn’t just Ben Simmons and his decision making — although it helps — it’s the ability of their trailing bigs to make plays. Dario Saric is at his best on trail threes from straight on.

And Buddha help the poor soul in the paint if Joel Embiid is trailing the play, gets the pass and goes for the dunk.

Which is what happened to Aron Baynes of the Celtics in the first half.

😱 @bensimmons to @joelembiid!! 💥💥

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That is the definition of nasty.

The detonation of Baynes came during a 13-0 Sixers run that pushed them to a 51-48 halftime lead.

Celtics-76ers: Something old, something new

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Players fought on the court. Police intervened. Another player fought the police. The teams combined for 107 fouls. Twelve players committed enough fouls to foul out, but some got to stay on the court anyway so there’d be enough to each side. Two players reached seven fouls. Bob Cousy scored 50 points, shooting 30-of-32 on free throws. The Boston Celtics eliminated the Syracuse Nationals with a 111-105 quadruple-overtime win in Game 2 of the 1953 Eastern Division semifinals.

And thus concluded the first playoff series between the longtime franchises.

The Celtics and 76ers, who moved to Philadelphia from Syracuse and changed their name, will meet again in the postseason tonight. The second-round series will be the record 20th playoff-series matchup between the franchises.

It also could be just the start of a renewed rivalry.

LeBron James has run the Eastern Conference for the better part of a decade with the Heat and Cavaliers, but his control appears to be slipping. Boston and Philadelphia look ready to take the throne, both teams set up to compete with each other for a long time.

The 76ers are led by 24-year-old Joel Embiid and 21-year-old Ben Simmons. They have an impressive and well-fitting supporting cast, and – especially 24-year-old Dario Saric – some of those secondary players are also still young. Philadelphia also has enough cap space to add another impact player this summer – maybe even LeBron.

The Celtics already acquired their stars, signing Gordon Hayward and trading for Kyrie Irving last summer and signing Al Horford the year before. Twenty-year-old Jayson Tatum and 21-year-old Jaylen Brown are so promising. Twenty-four-year-old Terry Rozier has gone from a joke topic to good player. Not that Brett Brown is a slouch, but Boston coach Brad Stevens is one of the NBA’s most-respected coaches.

And both teams have extra draft picks, some very valuable. (The Celtics acquired one from the 76ers, who traded up to draft Markelle Fultz No. 1 last year.)

This arms race started years ago in both Boston and Philadelphia.

Celtics president Danny Ainge traded Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets while those two were still leading teams to the playoffs and got a boatload of picks. Ainge kept flipping veterans – Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green and even Coach Doc Rivers for more draft picks.

Sam Hinkie’s Process gave Philadelphia a wealth of assets. Not only did they tank their way to several high picks (drafting Embiid and Simmons), the 76ers cleverly extracted extra selections from win-now teams looking to shed salary.

Now, Philadelphia is ready to win and still, like Boston, has extra picks still coming (unlike the Raptors, who had the East’s best record this season but also have older stars and are out this year’s first-rounder). The 76ers and Celtics can use those extra picks to infuse their teams with young talent or trade them for immediate upgrades. The luxury is in the choice.

This won’t be the marquee matchup that awaits in years to come. Irving and Hayward (and Daniel Theis) are out for Boston. Philadelphia is the big favorite.

But even in a rivalry more than six decades old, this feels like just the start of something.

76ers in their feelings about garbage-time shots (video)

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In the Heat’s Game 2 win over the 76ers, Philadelphia rushed a 3-pointer to cut Miami’s lead to eight with 6.2 seconds left. Heat point guard Goran Dragic took the ensuing inbound, dribbled past a pressing Ben Simmons, avoided a swipe attempt by Robert Covington and drove in for an uncontested layup:

Covington, via Anthony Chiang of The Palm Beach Post:

“It definitely matters because you can just dribble it out, everything,” Philadelphia forward Robert Covington said. “But you know, we don’t understand why he did it. But overall, we just said, OK, that gives us anticipation because obviously he didn’t care about the simple fact of the score of the game. They were already winning.”

Dragic, via Chiang:

“I don’t care,” Dragic said when asked about the Sixers’ reaction to the play. “The first game we were down 30 and they were still running [inbounds plays after timeouts] with seven seconds left in the game. It’s the playoffs. I’m doing everything it takes.”

Dragic’s play was perfectly fine. If the 76ers didn’t like it, they should have stopped it. Beyond that, why risk allowing a miracle comeback? It was the right, safe play.

Philadelphia tried to return the favor in its alreadyfeisty Game 3 win last night.

His 76ers up 19 with the shot clock off, Ben Simmons pushed the ball ahead and passed to a streaking Dario Saric, who attempted a layup. Kelly Olynyk blocked Saric’s attempt. Then, Miami guard Wayne Ellington fouled Covington with 1.7 seconds left, prolonging the game with free throws:

Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, via Ian Begley of ESPN:

“I wish I was there in that Game 2, because I was kind of pissed about it. … I was on the sideline, really mad,” Embiid, who missed the first two games of the series due to an orbital fracture and concussion.

Embiid said he told his teammates to look to score if they encountered the same scenario late in Game 3.

“It’s always good to blow a team out,” he said. “I think we were up 18 or 20 and if you could get that lead up to 22, I think it’s good. I love blowing teams out. I like the fact that we did that. We’re not here to make friends. We’re here to win a series.”

Heat forward Winslow, via Begley:

“I think they felt disrespected by Goran’s [layup], and we weren’t just going to let them do that,” Miami’s Justise Winslow said.

This is all so silly.

Last month, Saric scored late on the (pressing) Cavaliers in a game that looked decided. (Cleveland guard Jordan Clarkson then threw the ball at Saric and got ejected.) But the 76ers are going to be aggrieved now?

To their credit, the Heat fulfilled the don’t-it?, stop-it philosophy with Olynyk’s block.