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.