The Boston Celtics have defeated the Philadelphia 76ers in five games and move on to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Last year’s Eastern Conference finals will be this year’s Eastern Conference finals.
With a heart-stopping 114-112 victory over the Sixers in Game 5 of this Eastern Conference semifinal, the Celtics have advanced to face the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second straight year.
That series will start Sunday in Boston at 3:30 p.m. on ABC – but only after a fraught game ended with a wild sequence that saw the Celtics overcome a deficit inside the final minute to emerge with a win to complete a 4-1 series victory.
After the Sixers took a 109-105 lead with 1:37 remaining, the Celtics capped a back-and-forth game by scoring eight straight points in a 77-second span – on an Al Horford alley-oop, a Marcus Smart putback, a Jayson Tatum layup and two free throws by Terry Rozier – to go from down four to up four with 9.8 seconds left.
Along the way, the Sixers had their chances. J.J. Redick missed a wide-open three that would’ve put Philadelphia up by five with 1:11 remaining. Dario Saric lost the ball – on a play that could’ve been called a charge – with 37.8 seconds remaining. And Joel Embiid had two chances to score inside, on a post look and a putback, with less than 12 seconds to go before losing the ball out of bounds.
Terry Rozier than made a pair of free throws to give Boston that four-point lead with 9.8 seconds left – only for Redick to make a deep three-pointer to push Philadelphia back within one with 4.7 seconds left.
Marcus Smart than made one of two free throws – missing the first, then accidentally making the second after he tried to intentionally miss it – setting up Philadelphia to make a final heave with 2.4 seconds left. But Ben Simmons tried to make a fullcourt pass that was intercepted by Smart, who appeared to travel before flinging the ball into the air as Boston’s TD Garden exploded in celebration.
Tatum led the Celtics with 25 points, while Jaylen Brown had 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting in his first game in the starting lineup since suffering a hamstring injury in Game 7 of Boston’s first round victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Embiid had 27 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and four blocks for Philadelphia, while Dario Saric had 27 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block.
Al Horford has been the difference in this series.
Case in point:
Horford has been all over the place as Boston has gone on a 10-0 run to turn a four-point deficit into a six-point lead halfway through the fourth quarter. He’s outplayed Joel Embiid in this series and been the best player on the court.
There will be plenty of attention paid to Brad Stevens and Boston’s young players if the Celtics close this series out, and deservedly so. But Horford will be the biggest reason why Boston will have advanced to the Eastern Conference finals.
Robert Covington has been a big disappointment in this series.
The Sixers forward was 5 for 21 from three in this series coming into Game 5 – and once you remove the 4 for 7 he went from deep in Game 2, that number drops to dismal 1 for 14.
It looked like Sixers Coach Brett Brown had finally abandoned Covington when, after demoting him from the starting lineup in Game 4, he went with Justin Anderson as his first wing off the bench in the second half of Game 5. But he quickly soured on Anderson, and chose to go back to Covington late in the third.
The decision has paid off.
Covington hit the three-pointer to put Philadelphia ahead 90-88 early in the fourth quarter, and has been plus-eight for the Sixers during the second half. If Philadelphia can survive this game, Covington playing better as the series moves along could be a massive development.
As the fourth quarter moves on, an important development: the Celtics are in the bonus with more than nine minutes to go in the game.
That could be an issue as this quarter drags on. Now anytime Philadelphia commits a foul the remainder of the game, Boston will shoot free throws – as Jayson Tatum just did to tie the game at 90.
That’s not a position a team wants to be in on the road in an elimination game. But it’s where the Sixers find themselves, and what they’ll have to overcome to send this series back to Philadelphia for Game 6 Friday.
We have ourselves a game!
A 14-5 run to close the third quarter for the Sixers has pulled them back to within one, 83-82, of the Celtics heading into the fourth quarter of Game 5 in Boston – a game Philadelphia has to win to keep this series, and its season, alive.
T.J. McConnell and Joel Embiid have powered Philadelphia’s comeback, but start the fourth quarter on the bench. How long they stay there – and how the Sixers survive those minutes – could determine the outcome of this game.
Maybe this game isn’t over quite yet.
Despite it feeling like Boston took control for good with its 19-6 run to end the first half, Philadelphia has continued to hang around. And a three-pointer by Dario Saric has the Sixers within four with three minutes to go in the third quarter.
Saric has 18 points, six rebounds and two assists for the Sixers, while Joel Embiid has 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots. Philadelphia is going to need a lot more from both of them – and improved play from Ben Simmons, who is a team-worst minus-12 – to get back in front this game.
Joel Embiid entered this season having played 31 games in three seasons – with all 31 of those games coming last season. That total nearly tripled this season after the big man played 63 total games in 2017-18, and it marked a major development in the growth of the Sixers franchise.
But it appears now, as Philadelphia’s season is on the brink, that the load Embiid has carried this season is wearing him down.
The big man looks a step slow and sluggish on the court – understandable, given how much he’s had to play, how much important he is on the court and how little he’s been able to work out and practice as he’s worked his way back into regular playing time this year.
For Embiid to take the next step as a player, he needs to improve his conditioning next season and become a player that can consistently play hard for 32 or more minutes per game. If he can do that, combined with his immense physical gifts, he has a chance to do whatever he wants on a basketball court – and the sky will be the limit for the Sixers.
Before this season, Aron Baynes had attempted eight three-pointers in his career.
After making a three late in the first half, he’s now 9 for 18 from three-point range in these playoffs.
Baynes went just 3 for 21 from three-point range during the regular season, as the Celtics slowly began to move the burly Australian center’s range out to the corners, where he often spots up on offense now. That was where he buried that three-pointer in the final minute of the first half, helping power an 8-0 surge that capped a 19-6 run that flipped what had been a close game for the first 22 minutes of the game on its head.
Baynes has now made at least one three in each of the five games in this series and is 7 for 15 in this series alone. Entering this Eastern Conference semifinal, no one would’ve pointed to Baynes’s three-point shooting as a crucial element in how this series would play out.
Yet that’s exactly what’s happened.
A 19-6 run to end the first half has the Celtics 24 minutes away from the Eastern Conference finals.
After Robert Covington made it 46-42 in favor of the Sixers with 5:02 remaining in the second quarter, Boston took off, making six of its final seven shots of the half – including a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Terry Rozier – to storm into the break with a 61-52 lead.
Crucially, though, the Celtics scored the final eight points of the half – getting a three-pointer from Aron Baynes, a bucket from Jayson Tatum and Rozier’s three – to bust the game open after both teams had traded small leads throughout the half.
Tatum leads all scorers with 14 points, and is 6 for 7 from the field, while Rozier has 11, two rebounds and two assists. Joel Embiid has 12 points and four rebounds to lead Philadelphia, but had a bad possession late in the first half where he forced a contested shot inside that helped set up Tatum’s score.
Philadelphia has lost the turnover battle (eight to three) and the free throw battle (Boston has gone 11 for 13, while Philadelphia is 4 for 7). The Celtics have smartly attacked J.J. Redick and T.J. McConnell at will in the first half, and that will likely continue in the second.
Philadelphia is going to have to hit some shots from deep, as well – the Sixers are just 2 for 8 from three at halftime.
The first quarter of Game 5 between the Sixers and Celtics in this Eastern Conference semifinal was a close, competitive affair — as has mostly been the case in this series.
Through 12 minutes, the Celtics are on top by a one point, 25-24, in a game where the teams have traded the lead back and forth.
Once again, T.J. McConnell is off to a good start, making all three of his shots and scoring seven points to go with a rebound, an assist and two steals, as he continues to make a big impact on the Sixers as a member of the starting lineup. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum each have six points to lead Boston.
One other thing to note early: Philadelphia already has five turnovers. A big reason the Sixers had success in Game 4 was they managed to take care of the ball in ways they normally don’t. They need to get back to that.
Before Ben Simmons went to the bench, he’d already racked up six points, four rebounds and an assist, and had gone 3 for 4 from the field.
How? By being aggressive, and attacking the rim, as these highlights show.
Philadelphia is a far different team when Simmons is aggressive like this – which he wasn’t earlier in this series. If he can continue to keep making plays like this, the Sixers will at least have a shot to make this interesting.
The Sixers are facing early foul trouble in Boston, as Ben Simmons quickly picked up two and headed to the bench with more than three minutes to go in the first quarter.
Given how well Philadelphia has played with T.J. McConnell on the court, it might be something the Sixers will be able to weather in a way they wouldn’t have been expected to earlier in the playoffs. But it still isn’t ideal.
The 76ers began clawing their way back into this Eastern Conference semifinal by changing their lineup in Game 4, inserting T.J. McConnell into the starting five for Robert Covington. So, naturally, Philadelphia kept that starting five for Game 5 in Boston.
In response, Brad Stevens decided to change his starting five ahead of Game 5 for the first time this series.
Jaylen Brown, who injured his hamstring in Game 7 against the Milwaukee Bucks and sat out Game 1 of this series, returned to the starting five Wednesday, sending Marcus Smart to the bench. Some of that is because, with Shane Larkin out, Smart can play more backup point guard behind starter Terry Rozier.
But some of it also will help get more shooting and scoring on the floor (Brown is a far superior option to Smart) and more size. Early on in Game 5, though, Philadelphia is still the team dictating play.
The goal for the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday night is simple.
Down three games to one in their best-of-seven series with the Boston Celtics, the Sixers need another win to try to keep their season alive. Unlike most teams in this situation, though, Philadelphia has the capability to pull this off. Games 2 and 3 of this series were both toss-ups that went in Boston’s favor, and the Sixers started to look like a different team in Game 4.
Coach Brett Brown told reporters in Boston on Wednesday morning that he hopes his team is calm – a real worry for a young group like this, with arguably the team’s four best players (Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Robert Covington) all in their first postseason.
“I don’t want too high a level of anxiety,” Brown said. “I don’t think that helps anybody think or play.
“I feel like we have a game plan we are confident in, we have a rotation we believe in, and they have the spirit, still, to move this thing forward.
“We want to go back to Philadelphia.”
Doing so for Game 6 Friday night will require the Sixers to do something no team has done yet: beating the Celtics in Boston. The Celtics are now 5 for 5 in home games in these playoffs. If that doesn’t change, the Sixers season will be over in a few hours.
- Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics, 8 p.m., TNT (Celtics lead series 3-1)
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