BOSTON — Celtics forward Al Horford knew that his team, slow-footed and clearly second-best for the first 18 minutes of their latest playoff game on Thursday night, was down by a substantial margin, though he admitted later he did not know the exact number of points his team was in arrears. Almost everyone in the sellout crowd at TD Garden assuredly reminded Horford and the Celtics of their dilemma, as a smattering of boos emanated after the Philadelphia 76ers had built a 22-point lead, seemingly on their way to tying what most believe will be a long, drawn-out series.
Almost as fast as Boston found itself in that big hole, Horford, his teammates, and those 18,000 strong at the arena all did their parts in pulling off the Celtics’ biggest come-from-behind victory in the postseason since the year they last lifted a championship banner to the rafters.
Horford’s timely assist and bucket late in the game, along with repeat strong performances from youngsters Jayson Tatum (21 points) and Terry Rozier (20 points), lifted the Celtics to a 108-103 victory over the 76ers to open up a two-games-to-nothing lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The win continues Boston’s strong play at home, as Boston has won each of its first six home games in the 2018 NBA Playoffs.
Overcoming obstacles, including longterm injuries to Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart and Kyrie Irving, as well as the hamstring injury suffered in the first round by the team’s leading scorer in the postseason, Jaylen Brown, is an old hat with these 2018 Celtics. Tonight’s challenge, after the Sixers’ three-point accuracy and Joel Embiid’s dominance inside were prominent on their way to building a 48-26 lead, seemed like a hurdle that was continuing to climb with each passing second in the first half.
As we have learned over the past eight months, however, the more difficulties thrown at this iteration of the Celtics, the more they end up thriving, and after an extended 50-20 run brought the Celtics back into the game and into the lead, Horford’s heroics at the end of the game helped make sure his team pulled off its greatest postseason comeback since Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals against another bitter rival, the Los Angeles Lakers. His drive-and-kick immediately led to a Rozier three-pointer from the left corner that gave the Celtics a 99-95 lead with 3:36 remaining. With just eight seconds remaining, and once again up by only one possession, Horford caught the ball at the top of the key and attacked Embiid, who had five fouls at the time, with a dribble drive that ended with a layup for a 106-101 lead, virtually sealing the contest.
“Honestly, I didn’t even realize we were down 22,” said Horford, who ended the game with 13 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. “I knew we were down big, but what we kept talking about was we can’t get it all back at once. We need to just chip away and just go…The crowd was unbelievable at the end of that second quarter and I felt like that really gave us that energy and pushed us to the next level.”
And what a second quarter – at least the final stages of the quarter – it was for Boston, as it closed the first half on a 25-8 run, doing more than just getting the Celtics back in the game by the intermission. In those final 6:20 of the quarter, Rozier lit up TD Garden – and the Sixers – for eight points (including two three-pointers) and three assists. Also in that span, Brown, who made his return to the lineup tonight and was on a 25-minute limit following his hamstring injury suffered in Game 7 of the series against the Milwaukee Bucks, scored six points, including mustering what leaping ability he had to throw down an alley-oop pass from Marcus Morris on a 2-on-1 fast break to cut Philadelphia’s lead to 56-51, the score at intermission.
“We just said we need to do our jobs, first and foremost, and then, you know, hopefully if you do that enough of the time, you’ll have a chance to get back in this thing,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “And then, I would say, that was a win that was largely attributed to the unbelievable effort of our players and the other 18,000 people in here. Because it was, it was one of those deals; We needed everybody engaged in the game and it was a special environment. And the end of the first half gave us a chance.”
Even forward Greg Monroe, used sparingly in this postseason and who registered a DNP-CD in two of the last four playoff games, gave Boston a lift with a couple of field goals during that second-quarter run.
“One of the things that I so enjoy about “team” is when a guy that is going through, maybe something he’s never gone through, like in Greg’s case of actually sitting a few games in a row, but just stays positive, and then when his number gets called, he turns the game around for you. Huge, huge plays, and hats off to Greg. He helped us win the game and he was a big reason why we won the game.”
As Boston’s stellar play got the team and the crowd back into the game, Philadelphia head coach Brett Brown decided not to call a timeout during what proved to be the most influential moments in the game, taking the chance that his young team would fight through the adversity once the lead went under 20, and then, into single digits. It was a move that was questioned immediately when Brown stepped into the press conference room after the game.
“You know, you’re siting there wondering about match-ups, you’re thinking about timeouts, you’re thinking about all of it,” said Brown. “And I feel like if I had to do it again, I would do the same thing. I would have had the same people in the game. Trying to, on the road, make sure you have an ample number of timeouts, you know it’s going to be a close game. That’s the decision I made.”
A decision that Boston made, on the defensive end, that also proved pivotal in its victory, was rotating a number of big bodies to pound on Sixers point guard Ben Simmons, who ended up having one of his worst games in a season that will likely see him win the league’s Rookie of the Year Award. Simmons ended up without a field goal, scoring only one point while his seven assists were overshadowed by his five turnovers. From Horford to Marcus Smart to Marcus Morris, Boston’s goal to beat up Simmons on the perimeter physically proved effective, especially given that, when presented with the opportunities to take mid-range jumpers on his drives or when his defender would sag back into the paint, Simmons, as per usual this season, passed on them and made the Sixers easier to guard from the three-point line.
For long stretches of play, it was Simmons’ backup at point guard, T.J. McConnell, who continued to provide timely plays in keeping Philadelphia in the game, from offensive rebounds to finding open three-point shooters to, unlike Simmons, taking – and making – mid-range shots.
“I think it was mainly what I did to myself,” said Simmons about what led to his subpar performance. “I think, mentally, I was thinking too much, overthinking the plays. Wasn’t just out there, flowing, playing the way that I play, which is free. I think, obviously, I know what their game plan is. I got to play my game.”
Even with Simmons’ off night, the Sixers got into a groove early, with J.J. Redick hitting five of his six shots in the first quarter (including all three of his 3-point attempts) on his way to a 15-point first half to lead all scorers. Embiid produced a first-half double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) while Robert Covington scored 12 points in the first half and led all players in the first 24 minutes in plus/minus at plus-12. Each of those players ended up with at least 20 points, with Redick leading all scorers with 23.
“I think we’re going to be fine,” said Embiid, who ended with 20 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. “I mean, we feel like we started, especially tonight, we started off really well. Then we kind of lost it, so we know what works and what doesn’t. We made a lot of mistakes and we got to correct them.”
The series shifts to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Saturday evening, as the Sixers also boast a dominant stretch of home form, winning two of their three games at home in the first-round series against the Heat and winning 25 of their last 27 home games played at Wells Fargo Center.
The imperious play since the start of the new year is yet another challenge for the 2018 Celtics, which means they are more than ready to overcome another tall order.