By Peter Gleason
Here’s how the Sixers were able to stay alive last night in this East semi series with the Celtics:
Late in the third quarter, Joel Embiid grabbed a rebound and threw in a dunk that gave his team an 11-point lead. Boston had been within 4 points just 38 seconds earlier and now it was unraveling.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens called timeout, and Embiid rubbed it in by barking at Celtics forward Marcus Morris, a Philly native, as he walked past him. Morris held his left hand close to Embiid’s face. Morris held up three fingers, then curled his hand to make a zero, indicating Boston’s lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal.
In Game 3, colorful confetti poured from the ceiling after Marco Belinelli hit a buzzer-beater that some people — including the confetti master — thought was a game-winning 3-pointer. But it was a 2-pointer, and the 76ers lost in overtime. They became a national punch line for the paper misfire.
After last night’s win, which was never really in doubt, the air was free of confetti. No team has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, but the 76ers are eager to try. Guard Robert Covington reminded everyone that his team did have a 17-game winning streak quite recently, so in this case it would just need four.
“This thing can be done,” Covington said. “We’ve done it before as far as finishing the season strong, so why can’t we do this? We’re playing against history, but we’ve played against history before, so why can’t we do something great?”
Of course, the task will now get considerably more difficult with Wednesday’s Game 5 at TD Garden looming. The Celtics are 5-0 at home in these playoffs, and in the locker room after this loss, none of the players seemed overly concerned with their predicament.
Still, the playoffs can be fickle, and if the Celtics are unable to finish this series in Game 5 and then have to come back to Philly for Game 6, the unease will probably begin to seep in.
“I feel like we just have to come out, be aggressive, and try to make them quit,” Celtics point guard Terry Rozier said.
There is a chance the already-undermanned Celtics could be without another body in Game 5, as backup point guard Shane Larkin suffered a shoulder injury when he ran into Embiid in the second quarter and did not return. Stevens said he would undergo tests Tuesday.
Sixers coach Brett Brown made the first real chess move of this series, inserting pesky point guard T.J. McConnell in place of the struggling Covington. And McConnell delivered, tallying 19 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds, and no turnovers over 39 minutes.
“That’s how he plays,” Brown said. “There’s an injection of energy that you immediately know you’re going to get with him.”
Jayson Tatum had 20 points to lead the Celtics and has now topped the 20-point mark in six consecutive games. But the Celtics were undone by 15 turnovers, 28 fouls, and by allowing the 76ers to corral 16 offensive rebounds .
Both teams struggled to find an offensive rhythm early, but the Celtics’ issues were eventually exacerbated by foul trouble, as Tatum, Morris, Marcus Smart, and Jaylen Brown all collected three fouls in the first half.
With 2:27 left before halftime, Rozier was called for an offensive foul when he inadvertently hit J.J. Redick in the face as he dribbled. Embiid came over and tried to take the ball from Rozier, and Rozier did not really like that. He shoved Embiid, and Embiid shoved him back, and both players were whistled for technical fouls.
That small spat energized this crowd that had filled in after a nearly half-empty start due to the unusual 6 p.m. tipoff, and Embiid had a 3-pointer and a dunk that helped send his team to the break with a 47-43 lead.
The Celtics sliced an 11-point deficit back to 4 late in the third quarter before they began to stumble. With 3:19 left, Ersan Ilyasova scored as he was fouled by Brown inside. Brown did not like the call, and picked up a technical foul for making that clear. Stevens was then called for a technical foul, too, giving the 76ers a 5-point possession.
A McConnell layup with 9:02 left in the fourth quarter gave the 76ers their largest lead, 86-68. Boston pulled within 92-82 as the 76ers hit a scoring drought, but the Celtics missed numerous chances to get closer and could not orchestrate yet another comeback.