BOSTON — For the Celtics, Monday’s Game 1 win over the Sixers in the Eastern semifinals came with a big reality check.
There’s no taking away the obvious positives. The Celtics won the first game of the best-of-7 series just 48 hours after dispatching the Bucks in a seven-game grinder. The Celtics took advantage of a lax Philly defense and made 17-of-36 shots from beyond the 3-point line. The 117-101 win was another testament to the amazing job Brad Stevens continues to do with a roster beset with injuries.
Playing without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics took a 1-0 lead in the Eastern semifinals and once again showed off the grit and determination that’s been with them from the moment Gordon Hayward went down in the season’s first five minutes.
This time it wasn’t Semi Ojeleye but Marcus Smart stepping up and making life miserable for Ben Simmons. Terry Rozier was again unconscious. And Jayson Tatum – a true rookie as the TD Garden crowd reminded Simmons all night – scored a remarkable 28 points.
“We all got together (Sunday) and we had a plan,” Rozier said. “The plan was (finding) ways that we could stop these guys no matter who is on the court. We are well coached and our coaches hold us accountable for taking care of business and we hold each other accountable and that is the most important thing. That is why we don’t ever feed into the negative things that people say. We got each other, so no matter who is out there we are going to play hard and we are going to pay attention to details and take care of business.”
“We just stuck to the game plan,” Marcus Smart added. “No one did see this coming but us. We have a lot of confidence in our team right now and we are playing great basketball.”
The Celtics beat Philadelphia without one of their starters. Imagine what Boston will be like if they get Brown back by Game 2 Thursday? All of this would seem to be reason to think the Celtics will take care of the Sixers in this series.
But if you ask Brad Stevens, he’ll tell you all is not perfect, actually far from it. Asked to assess his team’s defensive performance in holding the Sixers to 5-of-26 from 3-point range and 42.2 percent from the field overall, Stevens was cautious.
“I didn’t think (the defense) was as good as any of the last three Milwaukee games,” Stevens said. “But, there were parts about it that were good, but we have to clean up quite a bit. They exposed us in a lot of areas. And they – credit them for that; they run great stuff and it’s hard to guard all those guys and all those actions.”
Most of that exposure on this night came in the form of Joel Embiid, with 31 points and 13 rebounds and a Philly team that crashes the offensive glass with ferocity. The Sixers had 11 offensive rebounds to Boston’s five but because Philly was atrocious around the basket, they finished with just 18 second-chance points. Consider, they missed 48 shots on the night and that’s a horrendous ratio.
This was not the same Sixers team that won their last 16 regular season games and then took care of Miami in five games. That series would’ve been a sweep had Philly not had a terrible second quarter in Game 2 at home. To think the Sixers will be this bad for the entire series is unrealistic and both coaches and teams know it.
“To look at this game, defensively, offensively, this isn’t who we are,” Sixers coach Brett Brown told me. This was a very poor game from us. And I give the Celtics a lot of credit for producing that. This isn’t who we are. We’re going to have to fix some things. I’m going to have to back up my words with our group. To think that this game is a reflection of what we’ve been doing the past few months would be a mistake.
“I thought it was one of the poorer defensive games that we’ve played in a while,” Brown added. “The 3-point shot (for Celtics) is what we’re all talking about and the rotations behind that. There is some truth to that. Some of it was missed assignments. Some of it I give them credit for.”
Brad Stevens’ predecessor Doc Rivers was fond of an expression that immediately comes to mind when looking back on Monday night. Rivers was fond of saying it’s a “make or miss” league. Certainly, in the second half, the Celtics couldn’t miss and the Sixers couldn’t make.
For one night, the Celtics had the rhythm and momentum from winning Game 7 against Milwaukee while the Sixers look like they’d been off six weeks, not six days. The Celtics had the same concerns when they played Philadelphia in London after a long break. The difference is that they fell behind 22 points in the first half and found a way to win by double figures.
Fast forward to Monday night, Stevens watched as his team matched Philly’s rustiness early on, turning the ball over three times in the first four minutes and getting outworked on the glass. They were saved by Philadelphia’s inability to finish and then ran away thanks to unconscious perimeter shooting and energy from a Garden crowd that – much to the dismay of Simmons and Embiid – was relentless.
“I didn’t think we started off the game as crisp as we ended it, but, yeah, that could be – that could certainly be a reason for whether they were a little bit rusty in Game 1 or whether we had the rhythm from Game 7,” Stevens said. “I guess if we come out here and lay an egg then it would have been, you know, we played the other night. So, I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to that stuff. We just had a game, so we played.”